Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced H.R. 2704 earlier this month. The Justice for the Unprotected against Sexually Transmitted Infections among the Confined and Exposed (JUSTICE) Act is a push to provide condoms to prison inmates. It also calls for reinstatement or reenrollment into Medicaid for inmates who test positive for HIV before reentering the community. Lee said in her press release “As we mark the 30th anniversary of the first discovery of AIDS cases in the U.S., we can no longer afford to ignore the reality that sexually transmitted infections can be spread within our correctional system. I introduced The JUSTICE Act to provide a comprehensive response to the spread of STIs in correctional facilities.”
One study reported in the August 15th edition of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome showed that prisoners who were released had the risk factors for contracting the virus and engaged in risky behavior (i.e. unprotected sex, drug abuse, sharing needles). The study found, through a series of post-release interviews, that newly released inmates needed to learn more about HIV and Hepatits C infection and had limited access to health care and medications. But remember, that is all after they are released.
However, another large study that was published in 2006 showed that men who are infected with HIV in prison came to prison already infected. The study also revealed that of the men who did become infected while serving time, half of them reported that their partners were prison staff members. Yes…staff members.
This Examiner spoke with Sam*, a veteran prison guard, via telephone interview to explore this issue further. He confirmed that prison guards do in fact have sex with inmates frequently. Sam explained that in order to address the HIV infection rate, we must stop the corruption within the prisons. “We only get paid once a month so by the 15th, you’re broke. There’s plenty of money in the prisons. The female officers will bring in drugs to the inmates for money. All they have to do is hide it in their bras. Or if the inmate loans them some cash til payday and they can’t pay, they exchange sex.” Negotiations like these (for drugs, food, cell phones, time off sentences, etc.) are made between guard and inmate often. Are condoms ever a part of the negotiations? Sam says “no’.
Congresswoman Lee is a respected representative who has been a strong advocate for HIV for many years. She is the founding co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus. Lee has authored/sponsored/co-sponsored 22 pieces of legislations and/or resolution regarding HIV. But this legislation is going to need some work. To her credit, Representative Lee is right to push for Medicaid services after release. It is imperative that former inmates maintain quality health care and have access to medications to keep their viral load at bay. However, once again, we are presented with the notion that throwing condoms at the problem will make it all go away. If it were that easy, DC would not have one of the highest infection rates in the country considering the city gave out more than three million condoms last year. There are deeper social, economic, and educational issues here to address and until they are, the virus will continue to spread (in and out of prison).
*not his real name
Visit me at TheBody.com.
Do you like reading local HIV/AIDS news? Click on ‘Subscribe’ at the top of this page to receive email alerts when more stories are published in this column.