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Friday, December 12, 2008

Tri-State Defender: AIDS activist retools push for condoms in county jail

Inmates are having consensual sex and contracting HIV/AIDS

By Wiley Henry, Tri-State Defender [Link]
Friday, December 12, 2008

Novella Smith Arnold is determined to get condoms into the Shelby County Jail and it’s clear that she sees the pathway running through the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Arnold, an AIDS activist and former jail chaplain, fears that some inmates are having consensual sex and contracting HIV/AIDS. She said these inmates then may spread the virus into the community after they’ve been released.

Commissioner Henri Brooks, one of the board’s more vocal members, penned a resolution and scheduled Arnold and other AIDS activists to speak during a recent commission meeting. But Arnold wasn’t fully prepared. So Brooks had to defer.

The issue sparked a countywide debate following the meeting. Brooks drew the ire of her detractors and opposition from Sheriff Mark H. Luttrell, who made his rounds to talk radio. If the commissioner wants to discuss the issue, “I’ll be happy to listen to arguments or review any data Brooks will present,” Luttrell said.

Collecting data

The Sheriff’s Department has begun the process of compiling data. Of the 31,645 inmates booked in the county jail this year, 10,495 agreed to be tested for HIV. Two hundred fifteen (or 2.04 percent) tested positive for HIV.

Here’s the breakdown provided by the department: 26 percent of men agreed to be tested; 1.86 percent were infected. Sixty-two percent of women volunteered to be tested; 2.3 percent had the virus

(Medical experts say the HIV antibodies, which indicate the virus is present, can take up to 12 weeks to appear. To get a snapshot of infection rates, HIV tests also would have to be given about three months after an inmate is released or transferred to prisons.)

Luttrell said the department is aware sexual activity occurs in the jail and it has taken steps to address the issue. “We know there’s a problem with sex in the jail, but we’re enhancing supervision and sanctioning those committing the problem. We’re following closely the protocol by the Shelby County Health Department (if a rape occurs),” he said.

When the issue of condom distribution is placed back on the commissioners’ table, Brooks plans to have her own AIDS experts and research.

“We want to address the whole issue of AIDS in Shelby County. We’re going to get our facts and the experts together first and have a meeting,” she said. “Then we’ll make some changes to the resolution and maybe address the issue at a board meeting sometime in January.”

Friends for Life compiled AIDS data for Shelby County back in 2005.

Between 2001 and 2005, 5,960 African Americans were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Shelby County; whites totaled 1,532 cases. During this span, 1,886 African Americans died compared to 639 white deaths.

“I know what I’m talking about,” Arnold said. “I’ve buried too many fathers (who were incarcerated), mothers and children with AIDS over the years.”

Distributing condoms to inmates isn’t an endorsement of homosexuality, she said. “All we’re asking is to protect these guys when they come home to their women and loved ones.”

Arnold noted rape cases have been reported. Joseph Liberto, who alleged he was sodomized by two inmates in 2000, filed a suit against Shelby County and the Sheriff Department. Another inmate, Darius Little, then 19 years old when he was gang raped, sued in 1996 and won.

“A condom won’t stop a rape,” Arnold said. “But there are a lot of gay folks in jail who will have consensual sex.”

Eliminating Rape

According to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), 2,100,146 inmates were incarcerated in federal, state, county and local jails at the end of 2001. Of that number, at least 13 percent were sexually assaulted. In the past 20 years, 1,000,000 inmates were likely victims of rape.

Congress passed PREA to make prison rape a top priority. It also seeks to prevent rapes and punish the assailant.

Luttrell said the number of rape cases at the Downtown lockup is far lower than Arnold’s estimation. “The average stay in jail is about three weeks,” he said.

There are other medical issues just as germane as AIDS, the sheriff said. “There are far more medical issues that we deal with than HIV/AIDS, such as tuberculosis and hypertension.”

Arnold’s passion and determination are fueled, in part, by personal tragedy. Twenty years ago, her foster daughter contracted HIV from a man who was sodomized in jail.

“He also infected four other women. And each one died,” added Arnold, who was volunteering as a chaplain at the time in the Criminal Justice Ministry.

Condoms, she said, would protect the women and babies that are born. “We’re trying to protect the unborn child. I don’t like burying babies. It’s a painful feeling when you lose a loved one to AIDS.”

Arnold also cited other AIDS cases while conducting her prison ministry. “When 14 inmates in a single pod begged me to get them tested in the late ‘90s, I called the health department. I was told that I had to be a health department employee. So (mayor) Jim Rout paid me $1.”

Of the 14 inmates that were tested, 13 were infected, Arnold said. “I ministered to them. And when they died, I buried them. I have ministered to and buried so many inmates over the years.”

Luttrell said he is adamantly opposed to doling out condoms. He said inmates should be restricted from having sex anyway.


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