Contra Costa Times Examines Spread of HIV/AIDS Among California Prison Inmates
The Contra Costa Times on Sunday examined the spread of HIV in California prisons and the lack of efforts to educate inmates and parolees about the dangers of the disease. According to state prison officials, there are currently 1,163 HIV-positive men in state prisons. However, the actual number of HIV-positive male inmates could be much higher because the state's prisons only test inmates upon request. California is one of 31 states that does not conduct mandatory testing of inmates, according to the Times. Ray Currie, a field supervisor at the Pittsburg Pre-School and Community Council, said that it is difficult to determine whether an inmate contracted the virus inside or outside of prison because many inmates are incarcerated repeatedly. Inmates say that high-risk activities -- which contribute to the spread of HIV -- are commonplace. One inmate said that most men who contract HIV in prison do so through unprotected sex, while others contract the virus through injection drug use. Former prisoners say that inmates "have sex all the time without protection, whether it is consensual or forced," according to the Times. A 2002 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that nearly 180,000 male inmates are raped annually in U.S. prisons, twice the number of all U.S. females raped in 1999. Some inmates say guards "just turn their heads the other way" during sexual encounters between inmates, according to the Times.
Lack of Protection, Education
Condoms are not permitted in California prisons because sex between inmates is illegal, according to Margot Bach, a state Corrections Department spokesperson. In addition, former prisoners say they received no education about HIV/AIDS while incarcerated. Many inmates are uninformed about HIV/AIDS and their HIV status when they return to the community, the Times reports. In addition, many men are reluctant to discuss the activities that took place in prison because they do not want to acknowledge drug use or sexual activities, according to Currie. As a result, HIV rates among minority women in certain areas have increased because some of their spouses are HIV-positive parolees who are unaware of their status, according to Sandy Johnson, a community health worker in Pittsburg, Calif. Officials for the Pittsburg Pre-School and Community Council found that of 113 high-risk women interviewed between July 2003 and June 2004, 60% had had sexual relationships or shared needles with a partner who had been in prison or jail. In addition, 20 of 28 HIV-positive women with whom the council works said they had had sex with men who have been incarcerated.
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D) said that the Corrections Department needs to re-evaluate its policy on condoms, adding, "The [department] can't look the other way because the reality is sex happens in prisons." Other advocates are calling for mandatory HIV testing in prisons. However, previous legislative efforts to mandate testing have failed, and some say what is needed more is education about HIV/AIDS and condom distribution in prisons, according to the Times. Inmates could "deal with their ailments earlier and learn how to take care of themselves and others before their release," Johnson said, according to the Times. Barry Zack, executive director of Centerforce, an organization that provides inmates with information about HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis, said, "The purpose of testing is about care and treatment, and in prisons they just don't do that. Routine testing doesn't tell prisoners what the implications of HIV and AIDS are" (Donaldson, Contra Costa Times, 8/22).