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HIV Cases in U.S. Prisons Decline

by Matt Clarke

In September 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a bulletin showing known cases of prisoners infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and those with confirmed AIDS declined for the sixth straight year in 2005.
The total number of known HIV-infected prisoners in the U.S. declined from 22,936 in 2004 to 22,480 in 2005.

Half the cases were in the South and about a third were in the Northeast. New York, Florida and Texas accounted for nearly half the cases with 4,440; 3,396 and 2,400, respectively. Overall, 1.8% of all state prisoners (20,888) and 1.0% of federal prisoners (1,592) were known to be infected with HIV. This represented 1.8% of all male prisoners (18,953) and 2.4% of all female prisoners (1,935).

The number of prisoners with confirmed AIDS decreased from 5,969 in 2004 to 5,620 in 2005. Texas, New York, Florida and Maryland accounted for almost half prisoners with confirmed AIDS: 894, 700, 645 and 408, respectively.

Prisoner deaths from AIDS-related causes (ARC) also decreased from 185 in 2004 to 176 in 2005, a death rate of 13 per 100,000 prisoners. Nearly 5% of all prisoner deaths in state prisons were from ARC. New York had the most ARC deaths (19), with Florida (17) and California (14) close behind. The Northeast had the highest regional rate of ARC deaths at 28 per 100,000 prisoners. The South was second with 13 per 100,000 prisoners.

Between 1995 and 2000, New York showed the greatest decline in ARC prisoner deaths (down 250), followed by Florida (down 102), California (down 68), New Jersey (down 46) and Georgia (down 42). In 2005, 166 prisoners died from ARC, down from 295 in 2001.

Between 1992 and 2001, the rate of ARC deaths among prisoners dropped from 100 per 100,000 to 25 per 100,000. During the same time, civilian population ARC deaths dropped from 29 per 100,000 to 9 per 100,000. The ARC prisoner death rate continued to drop to 13 per 100,000 in 2005 while the civilian population rate remained stabile at between 8% and 9%.

Overall, the number of prisoners known to be infected with HIV increased in 18 states and decreased in 27 between 1999 and 2005. The largest increases of prisoners with known HIV infections were in Florida (up 763), the federal BOP (up 436), Georgia (up 196) and North Carolina (up 164). The largest decreases were New York (down 2,560), New Jersey (down 329) and California (down 321). During the same time period, the number of prisoners with confirmed AIDS decreased from 7,039 to 5,620. In 1999, the rate of confirmed AIDS cases was 5 times higher than that in the civilian population. In 2005, it was still 2 ½ times higher.

The greatest statistical anomaly reported was the number of prisoners with confirmed AIDS in Maryland prisons which doubled from 204 in 2004 to 408 in 2005. During the same time period, the number of Maryland prisoners with known HIV infections decreased from 792 to 671. When asked about the sudden increase in AIDS cases, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli fumbled the answer saying officials “have not had a chance to examine the report” and trying to explain it away with speculation about the large number of drug-crime prisoners in the Maryland prison system and how they might have contracted the disease via intravenous drug use.

Vernarelli’s fumbling serves as an example of prison officials’ ignorance when it comes to HIV and AIDS. The explanation is quite simple, according to former medical technician and current Texas Peer Health Educator Charles Staggs, M.A., M.T. (HEW). Clarifying that “full-blown AIDS” is a pejorative term with no medical meaning which should not be used, Staggs said that a person with HIV has confirmed AIDS upon contracting one of the opportunistic infections associated with a compromised immune system (such as Karposi’s sarcoma or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) or tuberculosis. Thus, a great number of prisoners listed as HIV-positive could become confirmed AIDS cases if, for instance, an outbreak of tuberculosis occurred or a tuberculosis testing program were instituted or improved. Once a person is diagnosed with AIDS, they never revert to being merely HIV-positive, even if the infection which led to the diagnosis is cured. Staggs noted that HIV is dangerous, contagious and potentially lethal and that everyone--prison officials, prisoners and civilians--should educate themselves about the causes of HIV infections and how to avoid infection. See: HIV in Prisons, 2005 available on PLN’s website.

Additional Sources: Baltimore Sun, personal interview with Charles Staggs

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