Mapping black bodies for disease :Prisons, migration, and the politics of hiv/aids

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

6 Scopus citations


Few could have predicted the role prisons would play in the expansion of hiv/ aids. The rapid explosion of prisons in the 1970s and 1980s, which relocated tens of thousands of poor urban Blacks to rural landscapes, crossed paths with a growing "secret epidemic" that was devastating "gay spaces" in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.1 This collision resulted in a rapid growth of the disease among the most marginalized elements of Black life. The anti-Black, antipoor, and antigay policies of the Reagan administration were stirred together in a cauldron of silence and conservative policymaking. This political climate enabled the growth of the disease among not only gay men, but marginalized Blacks as well. Bedrock Black political institutions - institutions that historically have been the first and only opposition to Black suffering - allied with the conservative opposition to funding hiv/aids prevention, research, and treatment, reinforcing the political tone and silence of the Reagan Republicans. Silence and conservative policymaking provided fertile political space for the disease to grow. One of the places the disease began to swell was inside America's prisons. Though hiv/aids is spread through sex and sharing needles, prison policies have actively encouraged transmission by banning condoms, denying access to clean needles, providing substandard health care, denying mandatory testing, and providing little if any aids education. Perhaps the most devastating element of this matrix is the impact it has had on Black communities. As men "come home" from prison, and most do, they are in many cases unaware of their hiv status. Returning home presents a double-edged sword. Leaving prison is a welcome day for prisoners and their loved ones. Yet it also means the possibility of moving the disease from prison to the communities from which they came, and where they can unknowingly pass the disease to others. This has had significant implications for Black women's health. Of the over one million women who are infected in the United States, half are Black. Black women are the fastest growing group to test positive, they have the highest rate of infection, they get treated the least, and they subsequently die from the disease at higher rates than whites.2 Blending the research of prisoners, geographers, epidemiologists, and political scientists, this chapter maps the spatial, migratory, and political interconnections between Black bodies, prisons, and the rise of hiv/aids. I argue that the rise of hiv/aids among Blacks has been significantly influenced by three factors: the warehousing of Black men in prison; the subsequent migration of these men back to their communities; and a conservative political calculus unable and unwilling to grapple with this danger. This chapter also seeks to clarify the ways in which the practice of incarceration produces and reproduces migration. In the post-9/ 11 world, Americans and the global community have become increasingly aware of the exercise of U.S. power through carceral punishment. Yet, paradoxically, one of the unique abilities of the prison-industrial complex is to make borders - social, epidemiological, geopolitical - porous. Therefore, in demonstrating the vulnerability Blacks have to hiv/aids, I conclude by arguing that de-incarceration is the most effective strategy to combat the aids crisis in Black America. Comprehending the prison's function of internal forced migration provides us with a new conceptual lens to think through the roles prisons play in the United States. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, which produced what one scholar called the "biggest resettlement in American history," reminds us that internal migration is an ever-present reality in the United States.3.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBeyond Walls and Cages
Subtitle of host publicationPrisons, Borders, and Global Crisis
PublisherUniversity of Georgia Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)0820344125, 9780820344119
StatePublished - Dec 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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