News| HIV/AIDS |Mates and Inmates: Prisons, AIDS and the Black Community

News| HIV/AIDS |Mates and Inmates: Prisons, AIDS and the Black Community

Published February 11, 2008

This article is the first in a two-part series.

Posted Aug. 23, 2005 -- It got to the point where, whenever he touched her, she couldn't help but wonder: Did he mess around with men when he was locked up?

"He said nothin' happened, but I can't say for sure whether he did anything or not," says Selvy Hall of her then-husband, a drug addict who had been in and out of prison for years.

Keep-it-real rappers aren't rappin' about it. Nobody's talking about it. Not really. Not in mixed company, and certainly not for long. Even jokes about it are amulets; we pray that if we laugh, no evil will befall us.

But it's real, and it's a killer.

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Sex in prisons, among inmates. Illicit sex between gays, yes. But between "straight" husbands, too. "Down-low" with a twist.

"Man, them mother------s do all kinda sh-- in there," says Carl, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used. A Detroit heroin addict who is in his early 50s, Carl's done stints in state and federal prisons, mostly for drug-related crimes. "They be havin' all kinds a sex in there, man. Not everybody – not me – but they do.

"...(Corrections officials) know about it, but it's a way to get around it. Just like they be havin' drugs up in there. You can't stop it all, you know what I'm sayin'?"

Secret Sex

As with most taboo subjects, the picture is somewhat blurry. Muddled by cultural mores, politics and systemic loopholes. But it is also dynamic. And it is framed by this fact: Black male inmates are more likely to contract or transmit HIV because they are disproportionately incarcerated.

"Any discussion about AIDS and Black males in prison has to begin with a fundamental discussion about the number of Black men in prison," insists Phill Wilson, executive director of the L.A.-based Black AIDS Institute. "A 20-year-old Black man is more likely to be in prison than in college. And in a lifetime, 50 percent of all Black men will have been incarcerated for something. Why is that?"

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) there were 4,919 Black male prison and jail inmates per 100,000 Black males in the United States as of last summer, compared to 717 non-Hispanic White inmates. Further, there were 900 percent more Blacks in prison last year than there were 50 years ago, although the Black population has only doubled, says a report by, a liberal think tank. The surge in incarceration is due partly to mandatory sentencing legislation such as California's so-called Three Strikes Law, which calls for imprisonment regardless of the offense, the report adds. BJS also points to Black unemployment, inadequate drug treatment programs, and too few youth programs aimed at deterring juvenile detention.
Compounding matters, most ex-offenders end up back in prison, further upping the odds of catching – and spreading – a communicable disease,  experts say. The Justice Policy Institute says two-thirds of inmates released from prison are re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor. Though most inmates with infectious diseases come to jail or prison already infected, recidivism is a factor, says a report by the San Francisco-based Center for AIDS Prevention Studies.

"Many of these are non-violent crimes tied to addiction. There is no treatment on demand, and now these men are in an environment where clearly sexual activity goes on. ...We need to deal with this in an honest, open manner."

The prison culture doesn't exactly help, CAPS says. In fact, it ill-prepares inmates for life beyond the walls.

"During incarceration, all activities are scheduled and behavior is strictly regulated," the report says. In this atmosphere, inmates never "learn how to be responsible for their own behavior, which is critical in disease prevention."

Spreading the Disease

Many inmates want to celebrate their prison release by having immediate "pure" sex, without condoms (the majority of correctional facilities prohibit condom possession or distribution), CAP says.

Though policies vary from state to state, prison to prison, some facilities will notify families that an inmate is being penalized because of homosexual activity, Carl says. In Michigan, depending upon factors such as prior offenses, the penalty has been isolation, Carl says.

The state's 450 HIV-positive inmates are not segregated from the general population, unless they "engage in behavior that could spread disease," explains Leo LaLonde, a spokesman for the Michigan Corrections Department, adding that HIV-positive prisoners receive the same standards of care they would receive in the community. "When they need to see an infectious disease specialist, they do."

But according to Barry Zack of Centerforce, a San Rafael, Calif., education and support organization for inmates and families, infected inmates are nearly always grouped with other HIV-positive inmates, regardless of state policy.  "In California, for example, we don't practice segregation. But if you're HIV positive chances are you're going to one of six prisons."
In fact, HIV-positive inmates are often "clustered" as a practical matter, explains Dr. Ronald Shansky, a correctional health care consultant and prison medical specialist who has been a court-appointed monitor of jails and prisons nationwide. The inmates "need to be quickly available for a complexity of services," he says. "It's really to the advantage of the HIV population." 

From what he's seen, Shansky says, it’s "probably true" that prison guards are more interested in averting disruptive activities such as fights than in preventing and stanching homosexual acts. Thus, he believes it would be a "reasonable public health strategy" for U.S. correctional facilities to allow the use of condoms. Countries such as Canada have long allowed such usage, he says. 

"I think we can always do a better job of educating inmates and staff," Shansky says. "We continually need to work on ensuring that HIV patients are managed under the direction of specialists ... and that care and medicine is provided when inmates are released."

Whatever the case, discourse is long overdue, says Hall, of Pontiac, Mich.

"People try to keep (sex in prison) hush-hush," she says. "Some guys justify it by saying 'I wasn't penetrated, I was the penetrator.'   I have had a couple guys admit it to me. Then some would come back to Pontiac and act like nothing's going on.

"Some of these guys, they come out and go both ways, because they liked it."

Do you believe high incarceration rates of Black males is playing a role in high HIV infection rates?

Click to the left for Part 2: An ex-con spills the real deal about sex in prisons. A noted African-American psychiatrist tells who's likely doing it, and why.

Written by BET-Staff


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