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Prisoner Rape Spreads Disease - Inside and Outside of Prison

�The historic struggle against AIDS has created responsibilities for jail and prison administrators far beyond the traditional mandate to run humane facilities and prevent escape. The spectre of AIDS also makes us accountable to public health issues involving life or death for millions of Americans.� � San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessy 1

Prisoner rape spreads disease, including HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and hepatitis A and B. For some prisoners, such as former SPR President Stephen Donaldson, being raped in custody amounts to receiving an unadjudicated death sentence for a minor offense. Donaldson was gang-raped after being arrested in 1973 at a pray-in at the White House. He contracted HIV as a result of subsequent prison sexual assault, and died from AIDS-related complications in 1996.

Prisoners aren�t the only ones who suffer from the spread of these diseases. Almost all inmates are eventually released, and they bring back to the broader society the diseases that have been allowed to spread behind bars. Men and women who have been raped may feel shame and fear about the attack 2 and choose not be tested for HIV or other sexually transmissible diseases. Others are released into the community without the needed knowledge, skills, or access to resources to treat their condition or stop the cycle of transmission.3

In short, allowing disease to spread among prisoners hurts everyone.


  • Ultimately, 95 percent of all inmates are eventually released, creating a tremendous flow of prisoners back into society.4 In 1998, for example, 11.5 million inmates were released from jails and prisons.5

  • Correctional institutions have an HIV/AIDS rate five to ten times higher than that of the general population.6

  • AIDS accounts for one third of all deaths in California prisons.7

  • 12 to 18 percent of the HIV-positive population of the United States pass through the country�s jails and prisons every year.8

  • In 1997, between 202,000 and 332,000 prisoners likely to be carrying syphilis were released from prisons and jails. 77,000 were released with gonorrhea and 186,000 were released with chlamydia.9

  • Only two state prison systems (Vermont and Mississippi) and five jails (New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles) provide condoms to male inmates.10

  • The courts have suggested that housing an inmate in a way that exposes them to an unreasonable danger of sexual assault by someone who is HIV positive may constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.11

  • The desire to reduce the spread of disease among prisoners is a public health issue that has support from across the political spectrum. Congress called for a comprehensive study that resulted in the 2002 report, The Health Status of Soon-to-be-Released Inmates, designed to improve community health through better correctional health care.12

    [1] Fay Honey Knopp, AIDS and Rape Survival: The Availability of Condoms in Confinement, in Manual/Overview for Jail/Prison Administrators and Staff 12 (Stephen Donaldson ed., 1993).
    [2] Robert W. Dumond & Doris A. Dumond, The Treatment of Sexual Assault Victims, in Prison Sex: Practice & Policy 74 (Christopher Hensley ed., Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2002).
    [3] Center for Community-Based Health Strategies, Public Health & Corrections, Health Status of Inmates: Congress Calls for the Facts 3 (July 2002), available at http://www.healthstrategies.org/pubs/factsheets/phc-overview.pdf (last visited April 15, 2003).
    [4] Terry Kupers, M.D., Prison Madness xxii (Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers 1999).
    [5] National Commission on Correctional Health Care, The Health Status of Soon-to-be-Released Inmates: A Report to Congress 2 (May 2002), available at http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/cases/prisons/medical/v1/v1.htm (last visited April 15, 2003).
    [6] Statistics on HIV rates in custody vary. The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 1999 that �The overall rate of confirmed AIDS among the Nation's prison population (0.60%) was 5 times the rate in the U.S. general population (0.12%).� See http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/hivpj99.htm. Other studies report a prison HIV and AIDS rate 10 times higher than the general population. See Carol Polych & Don Sabo, Sentence�Death by Lethal Infection: IV-Drug Use and Infectious Disease Transmission in North American Prisons, in Prison Masculinities 174 (Don Sabo et al. eds., Temple University Press, 2001) and Robert W. Dumond & Doris A. Dumond, The Treatment of Sexual Assault Victims, in Prison Sex: Practice & Policy 78 (Christopher Hensley ed., Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2002).
    [7] Correct HELP, 2001 Annual Report (2001).
    [8] Karl Brown, Health Status Report: Infectious Diseases in Corrections, HEPP Report Vol. 5, No. 10 (October 2002), available at http://www.hivcorrections.org/archives/oct02/hivaids.html(last visited April 15, 2002).
    [9] Theodore Hammett et al., The Burden of Infectious Disease Among Inmates and Releasees From Correctional Facilities, in The Health Status of Soon-to-be-Released Inmates: A Report to Congress 21-22, (May 2002), available at http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/cases/prisons/medical/v2/v2.htm (last visitied April 15, 2003).
    [10] Theodore Hammett et al., U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1994 Update: HIV/AIDS and STDs in Correctional Facilities 38 (1995), available at http://www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles/hivaid94.pdf. Los Angeles County distributes condoms only to gay prisoners. See W. Wisely, Los Angeles Jail Condom Giveaway, Prison Legal News, September 2002, at 9.
    [11] Cited in Christopher D. Man and John P. Cronan, Forecasting Sexual Abuse in Prison: The Prison Subculture of Masculinity as a Backdrop for �Deliberate Indifference�, 92 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 141 (Fall 2001/Winter 2002).
    [12] The report is available at http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/cases/prisons/medical/v1/v1.htm (last visited April 15, 2003).