Answer to AIDS Mystery Found Behind Bars

A woman tests herself for HIV at a New York clinic.
A woman tests herself for HIV at a New York clinic. (By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
By Richard Morin
Thursday, March 9, 2006

It is one of the most puzzling mysteries of the AIDS epidemic: Why did blacks, in little more than a dozen years, become nine times as likely as whites to contract a disease once associated almost exclusively with gay white men?

Two researchers say they found the answer in an unlikely place: prison.

Rucker C. 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 about 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 half 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 the disease on 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.

Part of the reason for the rapid spread of AIDS among African Americans is that so many black men spend time behind bars, Johnson said. About one out of 12 black men are 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 that half of all prisoners engage in homosexual sex. But safe-sex programs, 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.

Take That, Frenchies

Of course Americans will make sacrifices in wartime. Consider what happened when the United States formed the Coalition of the Willing before invading Iraq in 2003 and France was unwilling to join.

With American boys and girls but no garcons or filles heading for the front, french fries became "freedom fries" and an ad hoc boycott of French wine was declared, promoted heavily by conservative TV talker Bill O'Reilly.

Some scoffed, in an aloof and threadbare French sort of way.

Turns out the boycott worked. Weekly sales of French wines fell 26 percent at its peak and 13 percent overall for the six months the boycott was in force, Stanford University economists Larry Chavis and Phillip Leslie report.

Rest Easy, Working Moms and Dads

Finally, good news for guilt-ridden parents who drop off their precious spawn at day care and worry they'll come back to find their child bloodied or broken.

Don't worry. Your child is slightly safer from unintentional injuries in day care than at home, psychologist David C. Schwebel of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and his colleagues report in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

Schwebel's team tracked the bumps and bruises of 1,225 children from birth to kindergarten.

Who Would Have Thought?

Happy Euros, BMW Bias and Stripper Solidarity

* "Subjective Quality of Life of Young Europeans. Feeling Happy but Who Knows Why?" by Florian Pichler. Social Indicators Research, Vol. 75, No. 3. An Austrian researcher is baffled about why European quality-of-life surveys find that young adults face "increasing unemployment, lower net income and single parenthood" yet somehow remain happier than older adults.

* "Gender-Based Judgments of Traffic Violations: The Moderating Influence of Car Type" by Claire Lawrence and Jane Richardson. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 8. British psychologists find that people are more likely to fault drivers of BMWs for being reckless than drivers of tiny Smart cars after reading identical accident scenarios where the make of car was altered. Women also were more likely than men to be blamed.

* "Distancing and Solidarity as Resistance to Sexual Objectification in a Nude Dancing Bar" by Sue Spivey. Deviant Behavior, Vol. 26, No. 5. A James Madison University professor interviews dancers in a strip club to learn their strategies for managing obnoxious customers, including putting their clothes back on.

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