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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Commercial Appeal: Activist urges AIDS tests, condoms in Shelby County Jail

Reaction mixed on warning of 'epidemic'
Memphis Commercial Appeal [Link]
By Alex Doniach, Thursday, October 2, 2008

HIV and AIDS among inmates in the Shelby County Jail is an "epidemic," activist Novella Smith Arnold told members of the County Commission on Wednesday.

Her solution? Hand out condoms to inmates and require testing.

"AIDS is still alive and well," Arnold told the commission's law enforcement committee. "It's still coming out of the jail to the black community, and our black women are suffering from this virus, and they're dying. ... I want you all to please put condoms in the jail."

Arnold, an "advocate for the poor and downtrodden" and former candidate for the commission and Memphis City Council, said condoms would protect those who engage in consensual sex, and their loved ones when they get out of jail. It's an idea that has sparked debate around the country.

Statistics from the Sheriff's Office show that, out of the inmates who volunteered to get tested since January, just over 2 percent tested positive. That compares with about three-fourths of 1 percent of the U.S. population, health officials say.

However, only about a third of those booked in 2008 were tested. Testing is not mandatory because the sheriff's office says the booking process is already very stressful to some.

"It's not exactly pandemic, but they (the inmates) do bring it," said Harvey Kennedy, Sheriff Mark Luttrell's chief administrative officer.

Reaction to the condom proposal was mixed among commissioners, law enforcement and health officials.

"The jail needs to get the message that, if you're going to do this, then at least protect yourself," said Commissioner Henri Brooks. "The reality is they are having sex."

Brooks said she'll introduce a resolution calling for condom distribution if the sheriff doesn't adopt a program.

But Kennedy said passing out condoms might send the wrong message. Inmates are closely watched, and he can't recall any incident of sexual assault in recent years.

"To be issuing condoms for prisoners as they come in would be sending a signal to anyone who walks through the door that you are at high risk" for assault, he said.

Consensual sex, however, might occur among inmates who share a cell, Kennedy said.

Yvonne Madlock, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department, said HIV prevalence in jails and prisons tends to be higher because inmates typically engage in riskier behaviors in and out of prison.

But she said rather than pass out condoms, resources for addressing and controlling the spread of HIV are best focused on increased testing and giving HIV-positive people proper care.

Condom distribution was an idea addressed here more than a decade ago with little success, she said.

If jail officials were to distribute condoms, they would be the first in Tennessee to do so. Other city jails distribute condoms, including those in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York.

Mississippi gives out condoms at its prisons.

HIV and the Shelby County Jail

-- Of the 31,645 inmates booked in the Shelby County Jail this year, 10,495 volunteered for HIV testing; 215, or 2.04 percent, tested positive for HIV.

-- For men, 26 percent, or 6,434, of the 25,115 men booked, volunteered to get tested; 1.86 percent tested HIV-positive.

-- For women, 62 percent, or 4,061, of the 6,539 women booked, were tested; 2.3 percent tested HIV-positive.

-- Alex Doniach: 529-5231

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