HIV Programs Cut From Mass. County Jails

BOSTON — A new concern has hit those in Massachusetts’ county jails. The state has recently eliminated more than $1 million for HIV testing and education in county jails.

“I’m very concerned,” said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson. “Our clientele are people who are in for a much shorter amount of time. They’re going to be going back into the community. We want them to be tested for HIV because they need to be aware if they have it, and number two, how to manage it.”

Bristol County is just one of the 13 counties in Massachusetts that will see the first of a series of cuts being phased in over five years. The first cut of $1.25 million will start July 1.

Many sheriffs in the state have warned that the cuts will lead to more than just cuts in testing. Jails will also have to eliminate staff members responsible for HIV educational sessions and also end visits with infectious disease doctors who monitor the health of inmates.

Federal cuts forced the state to reduce its overall AIDS prevention budget by $4.3 million. The elimination of the jail programs is just the first cut along the way of what could be a long trail of casualties.

“The decision to reduce these services is driven by the loss of funding, not the quality of services,” said Kevin Cranston, director of the state Bureau of Infectious Disease. “These have been extremely valuable services, which is why we’ll be rallying with the sheriffs to minimize the impact of these cuts.”

The cuts will make a big impact on the county jail system and those inmates returning to the community. Many inmates that have been exposed to the virus are unaware they carry the disease and risk the safety of others in the community.

Some testing will still be available through routine medical care, Cranston explained. The only concern is that fewer inmates will be tested — leaving many unaware of their medical issues.

Those helping in the efforts to reduce and prevent disease, like the Center for Disease Control, are now shifting its resources from states like Massachusetts to regions with increasing rates of HIV, like those in the South, according to CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Ruth Horvath.

“In today’s challenging economic environment, it is more important than ever to ensure that every federal HIV prevention dollar has the greatest possible impact on the national HIV epidemic,” said Horvath.

Although the cuts will hurt the county jails, some relief efforsts are being discussed. Cranston is asking public health officials and AIDS prevention organizations to provide testing and education services to county jails, although many of the organizations are restricted financially.

The cuts will not affect the state prison system, where they have a more stable population which makes testing and prevention programs less expensive — spending around $200,000 a year, according to Cranston.