Joseph Richardson, Ph.D., is on the front lines of the war to save young Black men. An expert on at-risk Black males, Dr. Richardson, an assistant professor of African-American studies at the University of Maryland, spends most weekdays in the classroom trying to reach young adults through books, and weekends at Washington, D.C.-area jails and juvenile detention halls, facilitating workshops for teens behind bars.
His primary mission in the jail setting is to keep Black youths from contracting HIV: The District of Columbia is the epicenter of America's HIV epidemic, with one of every 20 residents and one in every 14 Black men already diagnosed HIV-positive (actual rates are believed to be between one-third and one-half higher). And D.C.'s prison system is 55 percent Black.
We asked Dr. Richardson about his work with Project CREATE (Cultural Rehabilitative Enrichment Attained Through Education), an outreach initiative that intervenes in the lives of low-income, adjudicated Black males, to discover what he has learned about their HIV risk and how we can help reverse the disturbing trends.
Is there a direct link between young Black males, HIV and the prison system?
There haven't been conclusive studies to show one — at least none showing inmates being infected while they're incarcerated. Generally, inmates who come in negative leave negative. But while you've got a captive audience, educate them. We should be providing preventive services there. Nine million people go in and out of United States jails every year, but the criminal justice system doesn't see itself as a public health model. It's all about "lock 'em up." And D.C. jails, much like others, are run by private corporations. As with any business model, it's in their best interest to have as many inmates as possible while providing few services to cut into their profit margin.
What do you observe about young Black males protecting themselves and their partners from HIV?
Many don't use condoms because they feel they're invincible. Most say they know the risks but still choose not to use them; they prefer the feeling of vaginal wetness. It doesn't help that many of the young women they're dealing with don't require that they use one.
What do you find is on these young brothers' minds regarding their HIV risk?
They know there's a chance they could become infected, but they really don't think about it until after they're done having sex. They have a sense of fatalism that comes from living in low-income environments. They'll say, hey, you can die just by stepping off the street corner or get shot coming out of the house. So what's the difference? This is just another risk for me. Plus, they know friends, relatives or other people who are infected, so it desensitizes them even more because they're not seeing people dying from AIDS or HIV. To them it's just another chronic disease like diabetes or high blood pressure. They think, well, if I get infected, I can just take this blue or red pill every day and I'll be okay.
How does it make you feel watching young brothers self-destruct?
It's like watching genocide. It is tragic. That's why it's imperative that African-American scholars are critically engaged. We hold the data, and so we have a responsibility to give back to our community, like W.E.B. DuBois did — to provide prevention and solutions. I look at it as my mission. I could have easily been one of those kids.
How do we begin to reverse this trend?
Mentorship. African-American males need to be much more engaged. Project CREATE is the only program that comes into the D.C. jail for this at-risk population. I've approached Black men about participating, but it's hard to get them to commit. If it takes a village to raise a child, then we need to realize that mentorship doesn't have to be one-on-one, where one mentor is burdened with doing everything for one kid. Instead there could be mentoring teams — intergenerational, even: perhaps someone in their 40s, someone in their 20s and one of the teen's peers. That way, if one of the mentors gets offered a job in California, the relationship is not over; it's just shifted. Kids need to know someone is there for them and cares about them. Black people who've "made it" have to start doing their jobs.
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(Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)