Prison Rape and the AIDS Crisis

After last year's AIDS conference in Atlanta, newspapers across the country trumpeted the rising HIV infection among African American men. Detroit News columnist Deb Price noted what she called "horrifying" CDC statistics. In the Los Angeles Times, black reporter Earl Ofari Hutchinson lamented:

"Blacks are 10 times more likely than whites to get AIDS and to perish from the disease. They now make up 40 percent of all AIDS cases in the United States ... The CDC blamed the high number of AIDS cases among blacks on bisexual relations by black men. These men infected women with the HIV virus after having sexual relations with other men. In 1997, blacks made up 10 percent of the population in Los Angeles County, yet they accounted for a staggering one-quarter of AIDS cases in the county."

The real horror is this: CDC saddles those gay and bisexual men who do exist in the black community with a staggering statistical blame that isn't even real.

Can the CDC get real and say "prison rape"?

One out of four young black men now spends time behind bars. In another report, Hutchinson noted that half -- meaning one million -- of the 2 million Americans behind bars are black. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care admits that HIV infection is five times higher among inmates than the national average. According to Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), our men's prisons echo with sexual violence...meaning straight guys raping other straight guys, with gay inmates being raped if they're handy. While same-gender affections do sometimes survive behind bars, rape is more common as a sexual fact. Rape is the weapon of choice for terrorism and social control among inmates. Racial politics, the urge to humiliate your enemy, often explodes into forced anal sex, with whites trying to nail blacks, rival gang members trying to nail each other, etc.

In other words, many of these one million black inmates are at risk from prison rape.

Rape also means that sexually transmitted disease is rampant behind bars. The growing caseload of SPR and International Coalition for Medical Justice include raped inmates who hold prison authorities legally responsible for refusing to protect them and allowing their health to be destroyed by rape.

We're talking AIDS, hepatitis B, syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes II, chlamydia, the gamut. One correctional officer commented recently that the visible untreated genital warts he'd seen among young inmates were stomach-churning. Few prisons have sexual health programs. The Supreme Court recently turned down an appeal from Alabama inmates with AIDS (many of whom are black), meaning it is now legal to deny certain health services to U.S. prisoners. Most inmates don't dare to report rapes, out of deep shame and fear of reprisals. Indeed, according to some reports, some prison officials punish troublesome prisoners by putting them where they'll be raped.

The bottom line: the rapee seroconverts, and when he's released, he takes his untreated disease home to his unsuspecting wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, as well as future babies who might be infected in utero.

California, the Golden State, should be renamed the Prison State. One fifth of U.S. inmates reside in our fantastic array of high-tech prisons, which snakes the length of our state like the Great Wall of China, casting its long shadow across our sunny hills. In other words, a high percentage of our country's black prisoners are located here -- including youth who are dragnetted through ever-more-controversial (because of the police corruption involved) anti-gang operations. Is it any wonder that L.A. County's HIV figures on black males are going through the roof?

As Hutchinson points out, another major concentration of black inmates is in Southern prisons, where authorities have shown a callous lack of concern for prisoners' welfare.

Many Americans are vaguely aware that prison rape happens. It's a standard scene in movies that makes for fictional realism: hardened convicts leering through bars at the handsome young new "fish". Sexual violence is a plot-point in the HBO series "OZ." But when it comes to nonfiction (meaning news), many media and public-health authorities have a morbid Victorian compulsion to hide the link between prison rape and disease.

For a long time, U.S. prison authorities have tried to sweep prison rape under the rug. They must be acutely embarrassed by this ugly extreme of male behaviour, which they can hardly blame on gay men, because gay inmates are usually victims, not perpetrators. Worse, the general level of prison violence proves that authorities have way less control over inmates than they would like us to believe.

Even among prison guards, who are close enough to hear the screams, denial runs deep. After reading one of my postings on the subject, a Florida corrections officer wrote me to carp: "I can understand your concern about the spread of HIV and AIDS. But when you see the punks walking around in tight pants and ëadvertising', then in my opinion they deserve what they get." Thus, in a bizarre recasting of an old bias against raped women, some law-enforcement men now choose to believe that men in prison actually "ask to be raped".

Yes, our wonderful CDC, who is trusted to provide accurate statistics and realistic health policy in the United States, is not honest about prison rape.

Nor are black men and women the only victims. Latino men's HIV/incarceration figures are spiking too, with a correspondening rise in HIV infection among Latina women. Asian and white prisoners get raped. So do women inmates. Young prisoners, including minors sentenced to adult incarceration, are raped by adults. Why is this simple fact, and consequences for the nation's health, escaping the attention of our supposedly all-seeing CDC? Especially now that our prison population has swelled to 2 million humans behind bars?

As for those doughty conservative pundits who believe that our prisons are "country clubs," I would like them to spend one night behind bars, and listen to the screams of some kid being "turned out."

Unfortunately, judging by what I read in the press, many in the black and Latino communities -- including many church people -- follow the party line that their men get HIV only from bisexual sex and IV drug use. They evidently can't admit publically that many of their HIV cases result from prison rape. L.A. Times writer Hutchinson admitted: "Many black church leaders not only have not helped dispel some of the homophobia among many blacks, they've made it worse. They dredge up the oft-cited line in Leviticus in the Bible that condemns homosexuality as ëan abomination' and self-righteously dismiss those who contract the disease as sinful and shameful." Their attitude only proves what a high degree of shame and denial surrounds the subject.

Early this year, former NBA star Magic Johnson joined with AIDS Healthcare Foundation to launch a new magazine, Thrive, targeted to people of color. Hopefully Thrive will help banish the long shadows of prison rape.

Sexual violence has a disastrous and lasting effect on young inmates -- especially the many male teens who now go to adult prison for nonviolent crimes. All those self-righteous new crime-reform bills, which raise the felony bars for juvenile offenders, will cast the longest shadow of all, when these young people -- or their future victims behind bars -- finally get out of prison. Not only will they be emotionally, spiritually and mentally scarred by their prison years, but they will be re-melding their scarred health status -- whatever it is -- back into the general population.

Beyond this, I note late-breaking news in immune-disease research from medical reporters like ABC's Nick Regush, Celia Farber and others. These reports reveal that we still have much to learn about what we call "AIDS". It's not enough that men of color, and prisoners of all races, are hurt by government and media silence. They may also be hurt by a still-unscientific understanding of AIDS itself, and a public and penal policy that rushed to judgment before all the facts were in.

Meanwhile, how much public outrage will it take, to shine some daylight on our prison system's dark role as a vector of disease?

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