Friday, March 02, 2007

HIV/AIDS in Prisons

Welcome to this installment of the AIDS Pandemic, a podcast hosted by Dave Wessner of the Department of Biology at Davidson College. I am Justin Fried.

Prisons have become a fertile ground for the HIV epidemic in the United States. In fact the Joint United Nation Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) listed prisoners as one of the four "major at-risk and neglected populations" in the HIV/AIDS pandemic (2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic). The other three categories included men who have sex with men, injection drug users, and sex workers (2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic). Recent figures show that 2.3 percent of state prison inmates, and 1.0 percent of federal prison inmates in the United States are HIV positive, and an estimated 20 to 26 percent of people living with HIV have spent time in the correctional system (2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic and Kantor 2006). The overcrowded and typically understaffed prisons in the United States are ideal breeding grounds for HIV. HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids with sharing needles and unprotected sex being the leading causes of virus transmission. Despite strict regulations against drugs in prisons, intravenous drug use still occurs. Clean needles are almost impossible to find and needles or improvised injection devices are often shared by inmates. These needles may also be shared for tattooing, another common practice in prisons. In addition to drugs, many inmates turn to sex to escape the boredom of prison life. Because distribution of condoms is prohibited in most penal institutions across the United States, safe sex is not even an option for most inmates. Sexual assault and rape, which are common intimidation tactics used by inmates, are also potential sources of transmission of HIV in correctional facilities (2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic).

While high risk behaviors common to prisons put inmates at a higher risk for HIV infection while incarcerated, most HIV positive prisoners were infected before being sent to prison (HIV/AIDS Prevention). Indeed, the populations most vulnerable to the HIV infection are the same communities at high risk for criminalization and incarceration (HIV/AIDS Prevention). Fear of discrimination deters prisoners from accessing the voluntary HIV testing available in most prisons. Test result confidentiality is a major issue in a prison environment where even the suspicion of a positive test result can lead to stigmatization, bringing social isolation and violence from other inmates and sometimes even prison staff. The fear of stigmatization also discourages many inmates living with HIV from seeking medical services and treatment. Prison conditions also undermine the dosing schedules that are important for the effectiveness of antiretroviral therapy. Transfers of inmates to different correctional institutions or to and from courthouses can cause gaps in treatment. Searches for contraband may also result in medicine confiscation (Kantor 2006).

Addressing the problem of HIV and AIDS in prisons requires a multifaceted approach. UNAIDS believes that it is essential that prisoners be allowed access to prevention materials, including condoms, safer-sex supplies, and bleach kits for cleaning needles (HIV/AIDS Prevention). Increasing HIV and AIDS awareness through prisoner health education programs is crucial to decreasing the stigmatization of HIV inside prisons that prevents many inmates from seeking testing or treatment. For inmates living with HIV, provisions must be taken to ensure the regular interruptions of a prisoner’s life do not interrupt his or her antiretroviral therapy.

The Hampden County Correctional Facility in Massachusetts is a prison which is taking steps towards providing preventive education and effective health care to its inmates. This prison has adopted a health care program based on a public health model that provides inmates with a community-based standard of care (Kahn 2000). This program is based around five basic tenets: detection, effective and prompt treatment, education, prevention, and continuity of care. Prisoners undergo a three-day orientation upon admission and are given a full physical exam including tests for common communicable diseases. After attending an intensive peer-led educational session on HIV and AIDS, new inmates are encouraged to take an HIV test. Inmates that test positive for HIV then undergo additional tests to determine how best to proceed with treatment. Doctors, nurses, and case managers from the community are brought into the jail to deliver services to inmates. After the prisoners are released they have the option of continuing with the same primary care providers through a comprehensive discharge plan that includes Medicaid benefits and other supportive services (Kahn 2000).

The Hampden County Correctional facility is taking steps in the right direction, but fighting HIV in prisons is an uphill battle that will require revolutionizing prison health care. For changes to be made, Americans must first recognize that prisons are not isolated from the world, and that most inmates will eventually be released and infections acquired inside prison walls can be transmitted to the society outside. Preventing and treating HIV in prisons will benefit society as a whole and is important in the fight against AIDS.

Until next time, I am Justin Fried.

At Risk and Neglected: Four Key Populations. 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic. Joint United Nation Programme on AIDS. 2006. Retrieved Dec 2, 2006 from

HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care, and Treatment in Prison Settings: A Framework for an Effective National Response. Health Organization and Joint United Nation Programme on AIDS. 2006. Retrieved Dec 2, 2006 from

Kahn, Stanya. Fire in the belly: A model program stresses community involvement. AIDS Info NYC. January 2000. Retrieved Dec 2, 2006 from

Kantor, Elizabeth. HIV Transmission and Prevention in Prisons. HIV Insight. April 2006. Retrieved Dec 2, 2006 from

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