It’s an unfortunate fact that Black men—vastly over represented within our prison system—make up a high percentage of HIV-positive inmates. And according to the study, “Incarcerated Black Men Report Sex in Prison, Posing Challenges for HIV Prevention and Treatment,” these males pose an infection risk not only to other inmates—but to members of their communities once they are released.  The study was conducted by the Columbia University School of Nursing.

     “While sex is prohibited in U.S. prisons, sexual encounters are commonplace and few inmates express concern about getting or spreading HIV,” stated one of the authors, Tawandra Rowell-Cunsolo, PhD, Assistant Professor of Social Welfare Science at the Columbia University School of Nursing. 

     “The study asked open-ended questions about sexual behavior.  Many of the respondents said that deprivations of prison life promote same-sex encounters and that, although they have been exposed to prison rape, most of the sexual behavior within the institution is consensual.  Some also expressed negative attitudes toward men having sex with men.”

     Rowell-Cunsolo continued, “To prevent HIV in prisons and curb its spread once inmates are sent home, we need a better understanding of how Black men perceive sexuality while they’re imprisoned.”


     According to the study, the latest advances in HIV prevention and treatment haven’t penetrated the U.S. prison system, where inmates already at high risk for developing HIV frequently lack access to basic prevention—and don’t get tested for the virus.  “Previous research into the spread of HIV within the prison system has shown that inmates have much higher infection rates than the general population, but hasn’t provided a clear picture of what interventions might be most effective in this environment.”

     Rowell-Cunsolo added, “These are people who can benefit from education and outreach while they’re in prison, but there’s also a much larger public health issue at stake here.  These are people who are going to come out of prison, and preventing the spread of HIV in prison becomes a large community issue once these men return home.”

     Currently, nearly 1.7 million persons are in the federal prison system.  And at current incarceration rates, one in three Black men will be in prison at some point in their lives.  Rowell-Cunsolo surveyed 63 Black inmates at one of the largest maximum-security male prisons in the U.S., inquiring about their sexual behavior within that institution.  Two-thirds of that facility’s prisoners were Black; most of the study’s participants were married with at least one child.

     Over the past ten years, prison-based HIV research has found that only about half of American facilities offer HIV testing.  “There are some prison systems that distribute condoms or have a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of HIV, but for the most part this isn’t done because its seen as supporting behavior that’s explicitly against the rules in prison,” Rowell-Cunsolo stated. 

    The author continued, “That makes basic sex and HIV education really important.  Some of these men have been incarcerated since before the AIDS epidemic hit the scene and they literally don’t know how it spreads or how to protect themselves.”

     Each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in seven people with HIV passes through the prison system.  More than 1.1 million Americans are now living with HIV, and almost one in five don’t know they’re infected.

     COMING NEXT:  Former Prisoners Discuss Their Sexual Experiences In Prison.