Public Safety, VMD and Prisoners

by Jon E. Yount, SCI-Huntingdon, October 2003
(Mr. Yount is now at Waynesburg.--pw, October 2006)

"Public safety" is a common theme among lawmakers and lobbying entrepreneurs seeking to rationalize budget-busting policies that fuel momentous increases in mandatory prison terms as well as congruent denials of parole and commutation, divert $40 billion annually into federal and state prison systems, and deflect $4 billion per month to Iraq to locate thus far non-existent WMD ("Weapons of Mass Destruction"). Meanwhile, relatively little funding is being allocated to combat VMD ("Viruses of Mass Destruction"), the most rampant and deadliest being hepatitis C (HCV) and human inununodeficiency virus (HIV) as well as the latter's metamorphic form -- acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). For example, during a July, 2003 tour of Africa, President Bush earmarked a mere $15 billion over five years to slow the onslaught of HIV's viral terror in AIDS-decimated Africa and the Caribbean.

Our greatest enemy is complacency about these epidemics! The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported that although many Americans believe that AIDS is an African epidemic, there are nearly one million U.S. residents living with HIV -- nearly 385,000 of whom have full-blown AIDS. HIV and AIDS cases are dramatically increasing; 42,136 new AIDS cases were diagnosed in 2002, up 2.2% from 2001 -- an increase especially evident in large-city gay and bisexual men. Up to 15% of new U.S. HIV infections are believed to be drug resistant strains! Health officials emphasize that no vaccine or cure for HIV exists and that efforts regarding prevention have stalled. HCV infects three million Americans and will, like AIDS, eventually destroy most of these lives while invading untold others. The death toll from "9/11" pales in comparison with that of these viral killers. Yet our defense against this deadly invasion by HCV and HIV merits only minimal funding by both federal and state governments.

Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to VMD! The CDC and Bureau of Justice Statistics emphasize that HCV and HIV infect prisoners at a rate four times that of those in the general U.S. population. National Prison statistics reports that as of January 1, 2001, 25,088 federal (1,104) and state (24,084) prisoners were HIV positive. As many as 6,500 had full-blown AIDS -- the third highest cause of death among prison inmates (suicide and "natural causes" rank first and second). With 900 Department of Corrections (PDOC) inmates diagnosed with HIV and 247 with AIDS, Pennsylvania ranks sixth highest among the states.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that 8,000 of the PDOC's 40,600 inmates are infected with HCV. Because half of PDOC inmates come from metropolitan areas where injection drug use and other high-exposure actions are most prevalent, the number of inmates infected by HIV and HCV can be expected to mushroom. Yet, although the U.S. military claims to test its personnel for VMD at only $2.50 per test, the PDOC opts to screen inmates for these infectious killers on the bases of "profiling" and "request" only! As Attorney Angus Love, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, observed: "Diseases such as HCV cannot distinguish between a prisoner, a visitor or a correctional department employee. More than 15,000 people are employed at Pennsylvania's 25 corrections institutions. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come and go each year. More than 50% of the prison population eventually returns to their communities."

During 2000, eight million inmates were released from U.S. prisons and jails! The number of new individuals whom inmates leaving prisons will infect and the averted cost of treating those cases should elevate funding for diagnosis and treatment of these viral terrors to priority status. This health threat of cojoined prison and urban breeding grounds for VMD -- exacerbated by prison overcrowding -- necessitates vigilance regarding how prisoners as well as their families and communities are affected by the failure to effect a war against these viral invaders with financial and political vigor comparable to that focused upon alleged VMD.

And how does the PDOC, for example, intend to combat this viral holocaust? According to the PDOC's Chief of Clinical Services: RETREAT! The AP reports that the PDOC will reduce treatment for HCV from 5%-7% of infected inmates who now receive treatment to 1%-2% of such prisoners. Treatment will be refused to HCV-positive prisoners "unless they have 18 months left on their sentence", the rationale for denying such critical treatment being that HCV drugs "aren't covered by government assistance."

If budget restraints are to be the basis for denial of life-saving health care to prisoners, then politicians and bureaucrats would be wise to acknowledge that VMD are much greater threats to public safety than, for example, the PDOC's thousands of parole-eligible inmates and hundreds of benign lifers whose release from prison would serve as a countervailing source of funding for a war on VMD.

Scanned from the original by the Prison Policy Initiative. Please report scanning errors to .