Advocates urge prisons to take steps against AIDS

HIV cases in WVa prisons (courtesy Daily Mail)Cases of West Virginia inmates with HIV and AIDS have dwindled in recent years, but prevention advocates are still urging prisons to distribute condoms to their inmates.

Condoms are banned or unavailable in 95 percent of the country's prisons, including those in West Virginia. A recent report from the National Minority AIDS Council says offering condoms to inmates can cut the risk of spreading the deadly virus.

Joe Thornton, deputy cabinet secretary for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said there have been no serious discussions about distributing condoms in prisons lately and that the state would likely oppose such an initiative.

Thornton compared it to teaching children about prophylactics.

"They are not provided," Thornton said. "It's a tough situation. It goes back to some of the classes taught to children in school. Handing out condoms brings the question, ‘Are you condoning (sexual) behavior or providing a safety measure?'"

The most recent figures show that 13 West Virginia inmates had HIV in 2004. That is just 0.3 percent of the entire 5,067-inmate population. Other states such as New York and Rhode Island have far more inmates with HIV, accounting for 7 percent and 5.1 percent of their respective prison population.

Only Montana has a lower percentage than West Virginia at 0.2 percent.

The 2004 data shows a drop from 2003, when 14 HIV inmates accounted for 0.4 percent of the West Virginia inmate population.

In 2002, there were 24 HIV carriers out of 4,544 inmates.

West Virginia reported only one inmate with full-blown AIDS in 2004.

But these low numbers should not deter states from promoting HIV awareness and sexual protection, say education activists. Only Vermont and Mississippi make condoms available in their prisons.

Julie Haden, development specialist with the West Virginia Coalition for People with HIV/AIDS, said states refuse to hand out condoms to inmates because they could be used as a weapon to strangle others.

"Condoms can be perceived as a weapon," Haden said. "You can stretch them out and strangle someone. That's the hindrance."

Despite that possibility, Haden supports making them available to prevent spreading the virus.

She said she's dealt with several HIV and AIDS patients who have been in and out of jails and prisons.

"We see so many people become infected in prison or realize they are positive while in the prison system," Haden said.

"Condoms are the No. 1 choice of prophylactics," she said about distributing them in prisons. "It seems very simple, but in that setting, it becomes a difficult issue."

While sex is prohibited in most prison systems in the United States, it still occurs, whether it's consensual or rape, reports indicate.

There are 18 states that test inmates for HIV upon entering the prison system. West Virginia is one of the 32 that don't.

But prison medical staff will test for the virus upon inmate request, clinical indication, known involvement in a sexual incident or a court order.

Thornton, with the state's public safety department, said HIV inmates aren't treated any differently than others, with the exception of receiving the needed treatment and medication for their condition.

They are not isolated from others, and officials don't reveal who carries the virus, Thornton said.

Federal privacy rules apply across the board, he said.

"Inmates still have rights, too. When out in society, you're not privy to what illnesses people have around you. Only staff knows because of necessary job knowledge and that's it."

Prison officials usually discover if a person has HIV or AIDS by checking their medical history or through various health screenings that may raise red flags that they have a disease.

Nationwide, the rate of HIV and AIDS in prison is three times higher than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Prevention advocates such as Haden say West Virginia may have low numbers, but it has the potential to catch up with the rest of the nation.

In the general population, West Virginia reported 70 new AIDS cases and 41 HIV cases in 2005.

Thornton said the last 10 years have marked a significant decline in the number of new cases because of strides in education awareness in prisons and the general public.

He said distributing condoms might not be necessary because most inmates are now informed of the risks of catching the virus.

"When HIV first became a prominent issue, people began to understand what it was about," Thornton said. "One case is more than what you want. But in the grand scheme of things, more states are in a worse position.

"There will always be debate about the positives and negatives (of giving out condoms). Obviously, our decision is that we don't do it."

source - Daily Mail 

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