Conspiracy nuts have long claimed that the HIV virus that causes AIDS was created by government scientists as a way to kill black people. In fact, recent polls find that more than 25 percent of black Americans believe that the conspiracy is real. After all, African-Americans constitute about 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet half of all new AIDS infections occur among black people. Surely this fact must indicate that something is going on that targets the lives and health of black Americans.
Rucker C. Johnson and Steven Raphael, two researchers at the University of California, now claim to have solved the mystery of why AIDS so disproportionately afflicts the black community. There is a government policy at the heart of the epidemic: imprisoning black men and then not protecting them against acquiring HIV while in they are serving their time. The two researchers found that the increase of AIDS among American blacks closely tracked the rise in incarceration rates of black men over the past two decades. The researchers point out that about one out of 12 black men are in jail or prison, compared with one in 100 white men. And if current trends continue, a third of all black males born today will spend some time in prison.
Prisoners become infected with HIV through sex and intravenous drug use. Data on the prevalence of sexual activity in prison vary, but one conservative estimate found that 20 percent of male prisoners experience some type of sexual assault and 7 percent are raped. The activist group, Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that 240,000 male prisoners are raped each year. And data about whatever additional sexual activity is "consensual" in prison are obviously hard to come by. Some inmates have acquired the HIV virus before being put behind bars and they spread it to other prisoners by means of unprotected sex. After these prisoners have served their time, they go home to wives and girlfriends and pass along this deadly prison souvenir to them.
Until recently, prison wardens and the state and federal legislators have largely looked away, not wanting to deal with the crude and brutal facts of prisoner sex. Their inaction has incubated a public health crisis. Of course, the most effective way to prevent HIV infections among prisoners would be for correctional officer and administrators to put a stop to sexual intercourse and oral sex in their institutions. But since inmates tend to be young, violent, testosterone-fueled men, that is much easier said than done. In 2003, the U.S. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act to study ways to control and stop prison rape. Perhaps the PREA will eventually encourage the development of effective ways to protect inmates from sexual violence, but the crisis urgently needs to be addressed now.
AIDS activist organizations are proposing some effective steps to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS in America's prisons. First, they advocate that all inmates be tested for HIV when they are incarcerated and also tested and counseled when they are released. Shockingly, many corrections officials oppose testing inmates for HIV infection when they are initially locked up because their budget-strapped institutions would then be obligated to pay for their treatment. One result is the tragic rise in infection rates among African-Americans.
"Over the past two decades the disproportional increase of HIV among African Americans correlates with no other societal factor as directly as it does with the disproportionate percentage of African American men in our prison system. Far too many African American men returning from prison are bringing back with them the undetected burden of HIV, and all Virginians are affected by increased HIV infection rates and mounting medical costs to the public," argued the Charlottesville, VA-based AIDS/HIV Services Group (ASG) in a recent letter to the governor of Virginia. The ASG letter added, "Without testing and diagnosis, all returning offenders are potentially HIV positive. Those who are infected, but have not been diagnosed and treated, represent an alarming transmission risk, and they are unlikely to take appropriate protective measures as they reunite with their loved ones or engage in casual sexual relations."
Secondly, prisons must make condoms and dental dams available to inmates. However, Berkeley researcher Johnson notes, "it's illegal to distribute condoms in prisons in all but one state" because legislators do not want to be seen as encouraging gay sex in prison. For the sake of the public's health, this squeamishness must be overcome. One study of condom distribution in a prison found that both prisoners and correctional officers thought it was important and generally supported it.
Government scientists did not create the HIV virus, but a conspiracy of inaction and silence among government officials is worsening the AIDS epidemic among black Americans.
Disclosure: My wife Pamela Friedman is a member of the board of directors of the AIDS/HIV Services Group.