Justice

HIV and AIDS Are a Huge Problem in Our Prisons

July 24th 2015

By:
Nicole Charky

More than 2 million people in the U.S. are incarcerated, but compared to their friends and family on the outside, they face a disproportionate amount of health risks once they enter prison, including much higher risks of sexual assault and rates of sexually transmitted diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Recently, President Barack Obama made an impassioned call for prison reform and the pressing need to eliminate prison rape. He blasted the one joke that all Americans have heard at one point or another in his NAACP speech.

"We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison, we should not be tolerating gang activity in prison, we should not be tolerating rape in prison—and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable," Obama said.

Pres. Obama's powerful remarks on criminal justice reform at t...

Pres. Obama just delivered some very powerful remarks about criminal justice to the NAACP.

Posted by ATTN: on Tuesday, July 14, 2015


The reality of rape in prison has no comedic angle at all. One in 20 prisoners experience the dehumanizing crime behind bars, according to Human Rights Watch. And although the physical assaults can vary, leaving a variety of damaging physical and emotional effects on prisoners who are attacked, the transmission of HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, is a very serious threat to victims of prison rape and one that often goes underreported. It prompted legislative action, and by 2003, the prevalence of sexual assault was addressed in the Prison Elimination Act.

Prison Rape Elimination Act

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 aimed to rid correctional institutions of sexual abuse by providing federal and state agencies with "information, resources, recommendations, and funding to protect individuals from prison rape information." But sexual violence has continued in prisons despite increased preventative efforts.

Understanding how prisoners acquire HIV

Each year, an estimated one in seven people living with HIV enters a correctional facility, the CDC reports. Many acquired HIV in their community, not while they were living in prison. However, once they set foot inside prison, they are more vulnerable and at increased risk of transmitting a disease, including sexually transmitted infections, tuberculosis, and viral hepatitis.

In December 2008, a total of 21,987 inmates held in state and federal prison were HIV positive or had confirmed AIDS, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The largest number of prisoners who were HIV positive or had confirmed AIDS were incarcerated in Florida (3,626), New York (3,500), and Texas (2,450), according to the report, which examined how many prisoners were infected with HIV or had confirmed AIDS.

The study also looked at the AIDS-related deaths in state prisons and provided a profile of inmates who died in 2007, discovering that 130 state and federal prisoners died from AIDS-related causes that year. Florida, New York and Texas reported 10 or more of these AIDS-related deaths.

Elevated risk

Prison rape exposes more prisoners to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"The elevated prevalence of HIV infection in U.S. prisons has raised concerns over the potential for intraprison HIV transmission due to rape and other forms of sexual victimization," according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Although it will never be known exactly how many people are raped in U.S. prisons because many sexual assault victims choose not to report what happened for a multitude of both psychological, safety and emotional reasons, one study calculated what the likelihood might be for an incarcerated man to become infected with HIV as a result of prison rape. The mathematical model was developed to also provide preliminary estimates of the number of prison rape victims who acquire HIV. Results suggest that between 43 and 93 currently incarcerated men (only male rates were calculated in this particular study) have or will acquire HIV as a result of being raped in a prison.

HIV in prison

One human rights group is trying to inform people about the connection between HIV and prison rape and just how great the public health risk is. Just Detention is seeking to address the devastating link between HIV and prison rape and advocates for incarcerated people to have access to condoms and other sexual assault prevention materials, ranging from testing to counseling, and treatment.

New solutions

Sexual assault can happen between both prisoners and guards. According to Prison Rape Elimination Act surveys in 2010, three of 11 prisons in the U.S. with the most staff-on-inmate sexual violence were in New York, the Marshall Project reports. Three corrections officers at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women alone have been charged with raping inmates.

New York state is now taking unusual steps to prevent prison rape. Prisons are showing inmates -- both male and female -- orientation videos on how to identify and avoid sexual predators while you are incarcerated. The videos are directed by T.J. Parsell, a former prisoner who was dragged into an empty prison cell and gang raped in a Michigan prison when he was just 17 years old. It was his first day in prison for robbing a photo store with a toy gun.

The women describe their tough experiences entering prison. How they cried. The guilt they faced. The shock they felt. The people they missed. They said what they feared the most: violence, aggression, and rape. The explain how they coped:

Parsell's serious films draw on his difficult experiences and the lessons from other inmates.

"Inmates are more apt to listen to other inmates than they are to staff," he said. "The primary intention with this video is to start influencing the culture within the prison." He introduces himself to new inmates in the two videos, including this one for men:

Related: Prison Justice Is An LGBT Rights Struggle

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