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Texas Prisoners Face Mandatory Testing For HIV

From January to May 2006, 480 Texas prisoners tested HIV-positive upon their release from prison. Testing for the virus has now become mandatory in Texas before a prisoner can be released.

The bill for mandatory testing, passed in May 2005, was sponsored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

?We need to overcome our discomfort and attack the problem, because it is costing lives inside and outside prisons,? said Sen. Ellis.

The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) manages healthcare for 80% of Texas prisoners. From January through November 2006, 63,669 prisoners received HIV tests and 546 tested positive. Each initial positive test is confirmed by three follow-ups. The test results are confidential except to the prisoner and medical staff, pursuant to state law.

Dr. Susan Okie, in an article in the Jan. 11, 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, estimated that up to 25% of all HIV-positive persons pass through U.S. prisons. She suggested the distribution of condoms would reduce the spread of HIV.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said the state will never consider condoms as an option.

?We don?t encourage any kind of sexual activity in the prisons, be it consensual or otherwise,? said Lyons. ?There is some kind of misconception that prisons are a hotbed of infection, but most cases (of HTV) are already contracted before the prisoners get here.?

While most other prison and jail systems have similar views on condom distribution, there have been some recent exceptions. The city of Philadelphia decided in December 2006 to begin distributing condoms in county prisons to curb HIV infections. Also in December 2006, San Francisco County started providing condoms in county jails despite a veto by Gov. Schwarzenegger of a bill that would have expressly allowed condom distribution in prisons by non-profit agencies.

As of July 2006, the TDCJ held over 154,000 prisoners; of the 2,598 prisoners who were HIV positive, 1,494 were black, 628 were white and 273 were Hispanic. According to a recent report commissioned by the National Minority AIDS Council and co-authored by Dr. Robert Fullilove, ?Incarceration is one of the most important drivers of HIV infection among African Americans....?

The TDCJ has recently expanded HIV testing to include newly-arrived prisoners; 80% of incoming prisoners have consented to the HIV tests. ?We encourage that they agree to the test so they can get the care they need,? said Lyons. Such consent is no longer necessary, however.

According to a February 1, 2007 ruling from the state attorney general?s office, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice can adopt a policy that ?compels mandatory HIV testing for incoming offenders.? Thus, all TDCJ prisoners are now subject to mandatory HIV tests.

Nationwide, about 2% of prisoners are HIV-positive, a rate four to five times that of the non-incarcerated population.

Sources: The Daily News, American-Statesman, New England Journal of Medicine

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