By Christopher anderson
WASHINGTON – Maryland had the second-highest percentage of HIV-positive prisoners in the country in 2000 and the problem is growing, according a recent U.S. Department of Justice report.
The report said 4.3 percent of the state’s more than 23,200 prisoners were known to be HIV-positive, second only to New York.
Maryland had 998 prisoners who were HIV-positive in 2000, up from more than 21 percent from the 820 HIV-positive inmates the year before. It was the third consecutive increase in as many years and came at a time when the total number of HIV-positive prisoners nationwide fell, from 25,801 in 1999 to 25,088 in 2000.
While Maryland’s prison officials concede it is a problem, they argue that it is not the result of a problem in the prison health care system but simply a reflection of a high HIV-infection rate in the general state population.
This is “not an issue that is of our creation,” said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “It’s a societal issue.”
The HIV and AIDS rates in the prisons are symptomatic of the high rates of injection drug use and needle exchange between addicts in Baltimore City and urban areas of central Maryland, Sipes said.
The director of the Maryland AIDS Administration agreed.
Dr. Liza Solomon said Maryland has consistently ranked second or third nationwide in the number of HIV infections and AIDS cases among the general population, and that is due largely to injection drug use.
Of the 23,664 people living with HIV and AIDS in the state last year, 63 percent were in Baltimore City or Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. Another 20 percent were in the Washington suburbs. About half of those diagnosed in 2001 were infected through injection drug use, according to the AIDS Administration statistics.
Injection drug use across the state has been “the leading risk behavior associated with infection” since 1991, Solomon said. “Our prisons are reflecting the epidemiologic profile in Maryland.”
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Solomon said. “It is a huge problem within the prisons.”
Women inmates fared even worse, according to the Justice Department study released this month.
It showed that Maryland had the fourth-highest percentage of HIV infection among women in its prisons. The incidence of HIV infection in female prisoners was more than twice that of male prisoners, and the number of HIV-positive women increased 38 percent, from 86 in 1999 to 119 in 2000.
The report did provide some good news, showing that the number of AIDS- related deaths in Maryland’s prisons dropped significantly between 1995 and 2000. In 1995, nearly half of the 54 inmate deaths in Maryland’s prisons were AIDS-related, whereas only 10 percent of the 49 prison deaths in 2000 were AIDS- related.
Solomon and Sipes credited new anti-retroviral drugs and a strong inmate health care program for the improvement.
“In general, we know looking at falling death rates, it’s usually a direct consequence of good care,” Solomon said.