WASHINGTON – It’s one of the most puzzling mysteries of the AIDS epidemic: Why did blacks, in little more than 12 years, become nine times as likely as whites to contract a disease once associated almost exclusively with gay white men?
Two researchers say they’ve found the answer in an unlikely place: prison.
Rucker Johnson and Steven Raphael of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley analyzed census data and a federal database containing detailed information on 850,000 men and women who contracted AIDS between 1982 and 1996.
They discovered that the surge in black AIDS patients – particularly women – since the early 1980s closely tracked the increase in the proportion of black men in America’s prisons, which by the 1990s had become vast reservoirs of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The percentage of prisoners who were black increased from 40 percent in 1982 to well over 50 percent in 1996, according to government data. At the same time, get-tough sentencing policies more than doubled the prison population, producing even more infected black men who passed on the disease to black women after they were released.
So powerful is the relationship between race, prison and AIDS that it almost completely explains why half of all new AIDS patients in 2002 were African-Americans, even though only 12 percent of the population is black. In 1982, African-Americans made up less than a quarter of new AIDS cases.
The link remained strong even after researchers controlled for factors associated with AIDS, including the use of crack cocaine, Raphael said.
One reason for the rapid spread of AIDS among African-Americans is that so many black men spend time behind bars, Johnson said. About one in 12 black men are currently in jail or prison, compared with one in 100 white men. At current rates, a third of all black males born today will do time.
What explains the black-white prison gap? Raphael said the question is beyond the scope of the study, but other researchers point to poverty, a lack of opportunities, racism in the criminal justice system and the lure of the “thug life.”
Whatever the cause, the AIDS gap is not going away. Other studies suggest half of all prisoners engage in homosexual sex. But safe-sex programs, the key to controlling AIDS in the gay community, are unwelcome inside prison walls.
In fact, “it’s illegal to distribute condoms in prisons in all but one state” because lawmakers fear it would encourage gay sex, Johnson said.