For L.A. AIDS group prison health is public health

LOS ANGELES, April 23 (Reuters Life!) - For the Center for Health Justice (CHJ), which runs a sexual health education and condom distribution program inside correctional facilities, prison health is public health.

The Los Angeles-based group works to improve the treatment of inmates infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and to reduce its spread among the prison population.

Transmission rates of HIV in jails and prisons are at least five times higher than among the general population. Women in jail are also more likely than men to be HIV positive.

“Twenty-five percent of all HIV-positive people (male and female) pass through a jail or prison every year,” Vincent Jones, CHJ’s executive director, said in an interview.

It is a health issue for everyone in the United States because sooner or later 90 percent of people in prison and jails are released, according to Jones.

“People are just now starting to realize the intersection of HIV to jails and prisons,” he added.

The AIDS epidemic first struck homosexual men in the 1980s but it is now taking a heavy toll among other groups. Particularly hard hit are African Americans.

They make up just over 10 percent of the U.S. population but accounted for half of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


The rate of AIDS diagnoses for African American women is nearly 24 times higher than white women. It is eight times higher for African American males than white men.

Nearly one-third of all African American males will enter federal or state prison during their lifetime, the highest rate of any ethnic group in the United States, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Justice based on current rates of incarceration.

Although it is difficult to document how many inmates engage in sex, either consensual or forced, inside jails and prisons, a Bureau of Prisons study from 1982 reported that 30 percent of federal prisoners engaged in homosexual activity while incarcerated.

The CHJ’s condom distribution program is up against more than a few obstacles, including the fact that it is illegal to have sex in jail or prison and condoms are considered contraband.

In 1999, Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputies Randy Bell and Bart Lanni created a program for homosexuals housed in a segregated unit known as K-11 at the men’s central jail in downtown Los Angeles. Their Social Mentoring Academic and Rehabilitative Training (SMART) program works with CHJ, which provides HIV education and condoms.

“It’s not like we’re turning a blind eye. If they are having sex they will be charged. It is a crime,” Bell said.

The K-11 unit is one of only a handful of correctional facilities nationwide that permits the distribution of condoms to inmates as a strategy to prevent the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

“It’s about prevention. A lot of guys still don’t know the proper use of condoms. It sounds very elementary, but it’s very important,” said Bell.