No one can accuse Dr. Peter Ford of mincing his words. More than 20 years of working with HIV-positive inmates in Ontario’s federal prisons has made him outspoken about the need for Canada’s correctional system to attend more to the rate of HIV infection in prisons and the risky behaviour that leads to that infection.
Large chunks of the system don’t want to pay attention to the problem,” Dr. Ford says. “But once you start seeing prisoners, you realize there is a problem with risk behaviour and the volume of people with HIV.”
Dr. Ford has provided treatment to HIV-positive inmates while also conducting research on the epidemiology of HIV and hepatitis C infection in prisons, as well as on harm reduction strategies. He has found, for instance, that at the beginning some 90% of his patients were current or former drug addicts. Now, he says, that proportion is down to about half, in large part because judges are imposing longer sentences on people who endanger their sexual partners by not revealing their HIV-positive status.
Dr. Ford retired nearly a decade ago from his responsibilities, including director of the Clinical Immunology Laboratory at Kingston General Hospital, Director of the outpatient clinic there and his positions in the Departments of Medicine and Pathology at Queen’s University. He does, however, retain one activity. Every month Dr. Ford holds a clinic for HIV-positive inmates in federal prisons in Ontario, meeting with most inmates every month or two. His sole concession is that most visits now are by teleconference, rather than in person as they once were. He’d happily give it up, he says – but prison medicine is not a popular choice for most physicians, and there’s no one else who will take it on.
It is this dedication, and his commitment to research on the epidemiology of HIV and hepatitis C in prisons, as well as harm reduction strategies, that earned Dr. Ford the 2012 Red Ribbon Award – an award presented by CAHR to an individual who has given “outstanding service to the cause of research in a way that has increased our understanding of the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, while enhancing the quality of life of those living with this disease.” Or, in the words of Dr. Ken Rosenthal, who instituted the award in 2001 during his term as President of CAHR, the award recognizes someone who has gone “above and beyond the call of duty.”
For his part, Dr. Ford was surprised to receive the award, because, he says, “no one pays much attention to what goes on in prisons and the people who work with them.”