Tela Love, a 36-year-old transgender woman who used to work the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter as a prostitute, has been HIV-positive for nearly 10 years. When she started exchanging sex for food and drugs, she said, local police arrested her after finding condoms in her bag. She was subsequently incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison, where another inmate forced her to have unprotected sex with him. She later heard he was HIV-positive, she told Al Jazeera.
Love’s experiences with police harassment and sexual violence in prison partly explain why Louisiana’s death rate from AIDS is nearly double the national average and the New Orleans metropolitan area has the second-highest rate of new HIV infections in the United States, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Megan McLemore, a senior health research director at HRW, told Al Jazeera that Louisiana is not doing enough to curb the spread of the disease. “It is actually undermining the effort to control HIV by its own law and policies,” she said. In a report published Wednesday, she says officials prohibit access to sterile syringes and criminalize sex work, which “contribute to an uncontrolled HIV epidemic and an extremely high AIDS death rate.”
Around one-third of surveyed participants — who all admitted to exchanging sex for food, drugs or money — said police harassment and a subsequent fear of carrying condoms has resulted in unprotected sex. "(Police) are associating condoms with criminality and then using it as a threat of arrest,” McLemore said.