Prisons need strong public health care

Over the past decade, detection and prevention programs have made significant headway in stopping the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. In Black, Latino and other racially and nationally oppressed communities, though, both diseases are still rampant.

This is the kind of public health crisis that stays well below the mass media radar; it also falls below the allocation of the millions of dollars needed to further identify, control and eliminate the problem of these diseases.

The economic crisis facing New York City – a crisis repeated throughout the United States – requires a major effort at preventing the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, all we hear from the Bloomberg administration and other city governments is that there is no money. Billion dollar deficits are the theme of the local governments’ song. And, in fact, the way tax dollars are garnered at the local level, there is a crisis.

Leaders of the Fortune Society and the Manhattan-based Alliance for Inmates with AIDS are calling for state and local politicians to pay more attention to the health condition of inmates in New York prisons. This is necessary to prevent the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS among the prison population.

These leaders are also making the very logical assumption that a significant public health threat exists when prisons do not provide needed medical services to inmates. This is especially true for those returning to their neighborhoods upon their release from prison.

According to public health experts and advocacy groups, over 10,000 prisoners in New York State are infected with Hepatitis C and another 8,000 have HIV/AIDS. Given the racism in the health system and neighborhood housing discrimination, many of these prisoners will eventually go back home to neighborhoods that already have high rates of these diseases.

Authorities and health professionals must work to eliminate these diseases in the prisons, something that is possible. Unfortunately, racist and backward thinking often stops elected officials from spending the money needed to protect prisoners.

That is where the federal government must step in. The Centers for Disease Control, the major federal agency in charge of epidemics and public health crises, will be issuing national Hepatitis management guidelines for prisons this fall. That is a good first step, but not enough. Federal dollars must be the follow-up to these guidelines.

This is where these major public health problems run up against the war mentality of the Bush administration and the desire of the military-industrial complex for profits. This year’s mid-term elections must send a clear message to Bush and his supporters – money for human needs, not for war.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org