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June 25, 2006 - Galveston County Daily News (TX)

Hundreds Of HIV-Positive Inmates Released

By Greg Barr

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

During the first five months of 2006, 480 inmates who were released from Texas prisons took more than just their hopes and dreams of starting a new life as they rejoined society. They also carried the virus that causes AIDS.

As HIV infection rates continue to rise in the United States, medical professionals who care for the prisoners -- the population with the country's highest rate of infection -- say more emphasis on prevention and education is needed to curb the epidemic of infection.

Some men knowingly infect their spouses or girlfriends with HIV because they are unwilling to admit they had high-risk sex in prison.

Anne De Groot, director of the HIV/TB research lab at Brown University in Rhode Island, keynote speaker at a recent Galveston conference on HIV and prisoners, said 20 percent of the nation's HIV-infected population passes through the prison system.

"And we are the revolving door. They go in and out," she said.

In Texas, prisoners are required to have HIV testing before their release, if they have not already tested positive through voluntary testing.

The Texas Legislature passed a bill in May 2005 requiring that mandatory screening, citing the "genuine threat to public health" caused by the increasing number of inmates with HIV in prison who return to the community. Only 20 states require mandatory HIV testing.

"We need to overcome our discomfort and attack the problem, because it is costing lives inside and outside prisons," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston).

About 80 percent of incoming prisoners submit to voluntary HIV tests, said TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons.

At the end of May, there were 154,367 prisoners in the Texas prison system, of which 2,598 were infected with HIV. As of December 2005, 894 Texas prisoners had AIDS. Of the state's total HIV prison population as of that month, 1,494 were black, 628 white and 273 Hispanic.

During 2005, 1,215 inmates with HIV were released by the state, down slightly from the 1,307 released in 2004.

The medical branch has a managed care contract to provide medical services to the state correctional department, covering about 80 percent of inmates. Texas Tech University covers the remaining prison units. The state correctional system pays about $375 million a year for that managed care contract.

During the first four months of 2006, the medical branch processed 48,942 HIV tests for the Texas prison system, of which 778 turned up positive.

When a prisoner's test is positive, it is run two more times for confirmation, followed by a more sophisticated final test.

Medical branch officials said they expected to handle more than 73,000 prison HIV tests this year, and spend about $500,000 annually providing that testing service.

De Groot suggests that HIV infections in and outside prisons could be prevented if condoms were distributed to U.S. prisoners.

A study of Georgia inmates published in April reported that, among those prisoners reporting consensual male-with-male sex in prison, only 30 percent used barrier protection, such as plastic food wrapping or rubber gloves.

TDCJ's Lyons said supplying condoms to inmates is not something that the state would consider.

"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 this hotbed of infection, but most cases (of HIV) are already contracted before the prisoners get here."

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