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Female Prisoners More Likely to be HIV Positive than Non-prisoners

by Ed Lyon

Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), released in an August 2017 report, found that female prisoners are nine times more likely to have HIV than non-incarcerated women. With the total HIV-positive female population being 0.14 percent in the U.S., this means approximately 1.3 percent of incarcerated women in state and federal prisons have HIV, based on 2015 data.

A wider gap exists for HIV rates among women in jails. There are over 3,200 city or county-run jails in the United States. One study of jailed women’s health records in New York City showed nine percent of those who were newly-incarcerated were HIV positive – almost seven times higher than women in state and federal prisons, based on data from 2009 to 2010. Black women held in jails “are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with HIV as white or Hispanic/Latino women,” according to the CDC.

The CDC and BJS data found that most female prisoners with HIV were infected before their incarceration. “Jails and prisons are places where a disproportional number of HIV-infected women end up, primarily because both HIV and incarceration target those who are poor,” stated infectious disease specialist Dr. Anne Spaulding.

Another contributing factor is the growing number of women being locked up. This mainly affects the “most socially disadvantaged women” – black, Hispanic and the poor. Women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the nation. Imprisonment rates are highest for adult black women in the 30-34 year age range, then Hispanic women and then white women. Black women are 1.6 to 4.1 times more likely to be imprisoned than whites, regardless of age.

A major factor for rising female incarceration rates is stricter drug laws and more vigorous efforts by police to enforce them. The activities and circumstances that subject women to police scrutiny mirror those that place them at greater risk of HIV infection. Women “are more likely to be incarcerated for drug and property offenses” than males; they are also more likely than men “to have substance abuse issues” and “use harder drugs,” according to the CDC and BJS.

Further, women who engage in sex work are at a greater risk of arrest, especially those who work on the streets. Sex work is also a high-risk factor for contracting HIV. A Rhode Island study found that 27 percent of female prisoners reported being sex workers, while similar studies infer activities like prostitution and drug use are “often introduced by male partners in intimate relationships.” A Vera Institute of Justice report showed 86 percent of women prisoners have experienced sexual violence, which also may contribute to higher rates of HIV infection.

Problems for HIV-positive prisoners can follow them after they are released from custody, too.

“Some prison systems try to save money by decreasing the number of weeks of medications they provided to people with HIV at discharge – from four weeks’ worth to two weeks,’” said Dr. Spaulding. “That’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, especially in a community where the wait for a new appointment in an HIV clinic can take up to several months.” 

Sources: The Nation,,


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