TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Due to overcrowding in Alabama prisons, the state recently began diverting felons with lesser charges into parole and probation programs. One unexpected outcome, however, was that these convicted offenders, who fall in a higher risk bracket for HIV, no longer had access to the HIV education classes routinely offered in prison.
Wanting to close this educational gap and bring free HIV testing to those willing to participate, Dr. Bronwen Lichtenstein, UA professor of criminal justice, joined with the West Alabama AIDS Outreach, or WAAO, and the Tuscaloosa Parole and Probation Office to find a plausible solution.
The findings of her intervention were recently published in the top scholastic journal in AIDS research, the Journal of the International AIDS Society, and have been well received by the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“I felt that it was imperative to provide HIV testing for a high risk population in our area,” Lichtenstein said. “With Alabama prisons being depopulated because of overcrowding, we knew that HIV testing and treatment at probation and parole offices could help to save lives and prevent transmission in the community. We wanted to bring the numbers down.”
For the study, Lichtenstein and doctoral student Brad Barber, who has been a probation officer in Tuscaloosa for the last five years, divided the participants into two groups. The first group was composed of newly sentenced parolees, who were given HIV education training by WAAO personnel at the conclusion of their probation orientation meeting.
The second group, composed of parolees and probationers already within the system, were not offered HIV education, but were invited by their parole/probation officers to participate in free HIV testing at the office.
While more than 30 percent of the new offenders volunteered to be tested, only 3 percent of the current offenders volunteered—meaning that education among parolees significantly influences their willingness to be tested. And in a population where HIV is prevalent, testing and treatment are imperative.
In addition to education, Lichtenstein believes that having an outside party provide the education and supply the tests also helps.
“Officers are essentially there to find out if the convicted offenders have broken probation,” Lichtenstein said. “If they’ve done drugs or any illegal activity, they can be arrested on the spot, so it’s not a great place to ask if they would like to be tested for HIV.’”
According to Lichtenstein, having the WAAO clinicians offer the testing instead of the officers reduces the parolees’ fear of legal repercussions.
Following the pilot study, the Alabama Department of Public Health funded WAAO to expand the program to seven rural probation and parole offices within the 10 counties that they serve.
“The only research that I care about is research that has a true impact,” said Dr. Billy Kirkpatrick, the executive director at WAAO. “And this project is a great example of that. When someone like Dr. Lichtenstein wants to do a collaborative project, we love it because she can conceptualize it, we can facilitate it, and then she can assess it—and in the end we have a program that not only helps people but is academically valid, in turn allowing for more of these projects in the future.”
This semester Lichtenstein will also involve UA undergraduate students in the program by having them provide the HIV educational training at the probation office. Rather than give full lessons at the orientation meetings, the students will talk with parolees as they wait in the waiting room. Following their educational script, the students will then invite the participants to be tested at the office by WAAO personnel.
“This project is a three-legged stool,” Barber said. “Without the help of all three parties—from Dr. Lichtenstein, to Billy, to myself—the program wouldn’t have worked, but together, we were able to build something great.”