Use science, not stigma, to determine the next steps for Nushawn Williams (Commentary)
Published in Syracuse.com
Updated Mar 16, 9:02 AM; Posted Mar 16, 9:02 AM
By Dr. William M. Valenti and Anne Kelsey
Dr. William M. Valenti is a New York state-licensed physician in practice in Rochester. He has worked in HIV medicine, research and HIV health policy since 1981. Anne Kelsey is a staff attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy, in Brooklyn.
In 1999, Nushawn Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory rape and two counts of reckless endangerment for having sex while HIV positive at the age of 19 and 20 years old. He served the full sentence of 12 years, but days before his scheduled release from prison in 2010 he was served with a petition to continue his imprisonment as a “dangerous sex offender” under New York’s civil commitment law.
Williams’s HIV status was a central part of the civil commitment case, and the finding that he is dangerous was based almost entirely on the fact that he was sexually active while HIV positive. He remains confined under conditions more restrictive than prison, without the benefit of comprehensive health care and with virtually no sexual health literacy training or actual mental health care.
In the last 20 years, HIV care has evolved to include scientific evidence that should be considered in evaluating the next steps for Williams. Medical treatment with modern HIV drugs can stop the spread of HIV. When taken as directed, today’s treatments stop HIV transmission from a person with HIV to others. Those who are HIV negative can prevent HIV with pre-exposure preventive therapy (PrEP). These treatments require regular medical care and adherence to regimens that are less complex and better tolerated than when Williams was jailed originally.
New York state’s initiative to End the HIV Epidemic (EtE) consolidates the accumulated scientific evidence into a three-point plan that highlights both the importance of retention in HIV medical care and the importance of HIV treatment and PrEP for HIV negative persons, as prevention tools.
EtE also incorporates mental health therapy as central to improving individual health outcomes and the ability of a person living with HIV to better manage HIV stigma, which works against the EtE objectives by perpetuating misinformation, marginalizing people and keeping them away from HIV testing and life-saving medical care.
A decision regarding the appropriate treatment of Williams should consider not only the social justice issues central to the case, but also his access to comprehensive medical care based on a robust body of scientific evidence that is the basis for today’s HIV care. His engagement in a medical care plan that includes the EtE priorities provides a safety net that should address any post-release risk of transmission to others. And indeed, New York state non-profits and health care professionals have committed to provide Williams with housing, regular HIV care and health monitoring, and employment when he is released.
Individuals committed under Article 10 are required to be provided an annual hearing each year to review their confinement. Williams had his first annual review hearing in January in Oneida County Supreme Court. We urge the Attorney General to reconsider his confinement, and to take into account the remarkable improvements in HIV treatment and prevention that have occurred since Nushawn Williams was put in prison in 1999.
To learn more about his case and to get involved, visit www.freenushawn.com.