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No AIDS Epidemic Seen So Far In Tests Of Federal Prisoners

August 12, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two months after the Reagan administration began testing federal inmates for AIDS, officials say they have yet to find an epidemic behind bars but will extend the program by six weeks to get a larger sample.

Several regional officials of the Federal Bureau of Prisons said in interviews this week that they were surprised at the low number of inmates testing positive for the AIDS virus.

″You could say there hasn’t been any explosion,″ said Assistant Surgeon General Robert Brutsche, who heads the program, begun June 15, of conducting AIDS tests on incoming and outgoing inmates at the 47 federal prisons.

″We’re dealing with positive figures that are too low to talk about,″ Brutsche said.

Meanwhile, officials at the all-male U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., said that as of Monday, there were only 15 prisoners with AIDS out of a population of about 1,000.

But Brutsche cautioned such a figure was hardly an indication of the prevalence of AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, in U.S. prisons.

Prisoners are sent to Springfield only when they have opportunistic infections based on ″full-blown AIDS cases,″ he said. Inmates testing positive for the AIDS virus but not showing symptoms of the disease are kept in regular prisons and often are not separated from the other prisoners.

Saying the AIDS epidemic ″calls for urgency, not panic,″ President Reagan announced on May 31 that he was asking the Justice Department to plan for testing all of the roughly 43,500 federal prisoners.

Eight days later, Attorney General Edwin Meese III announced a scaled-down plan of testing people entering and leaving the federal prison system.

It calls for new inmates who are free of the AIDS virus to be tested again every six months, providing the government with an eventual gauge of the likelihood of encountering the virus behind bars.

Beginning Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was to have begun analyzing and announcing its test results, and to decide whether it was necessary to continue testing both incoming and departing inmates.

But Brutsche said Monday that the program had been extended until Sept. 30 to broaden the sample. Bureau officials cited lags in receiving results, in part because the government is still working on contracting with a single laboratory to process blood samples. Many labs are used now.

While none of the information is to be released until October, several regional officials who agreed to talk about the program in general terms said the AIDS figures had been surprisingly low.

″Generally speaking, we haven’t had the overwhelming amount of cases that maybe the public might have anticipated,″ said Michael Benov, an executive assistant in the bureau’s Western regional office in Belmont, Calif.

John Copher, medical director for the Northeast office in Philadelphia, said: ″Just from a personal standpoint, I was kind of pleasantly surprised that it was not as high in my region as we had expected, what with all the intravenous drug users.″

AIDS, which breaks down the body’s immune system, can be spread through sharing of intravenous drug needles as well as by sexual contact.

Jack Roach, medical administrator of the bureau’s Southeast office in Atlanta, said AIDS has been so highly publicized that fear of acquiring the virus has spread behind prison walls.

″I think AIDS is so heavily in the news media that everybody is concerned. Inmates are concerned too, and a lot of them are volunteering for tests,″ he said.

Until June, federal prison inmates could not be tested for AIDS unless they showed signs of the disease. The policy was changed to allow all prisoners requesting a test to receive one.

Roach said fear of the disease may have curtailed illicit sexual activity in prison.

″If I were a corrections officer, I would take precautions and treat everyone like they had tuberculosis, hepatitis or whatever. I imagine even the inmates would be more selective than they used to be - not go around raping someone, because you don’t know what they have,″ he said.

Brutsche said in June that the administration had ruled out distributing condoms to federal prisoners because homosexual sex is against regulations ″and we don’t feel we can have a two-faced position.″

Since 1981, 297 federal inmates have been found infected with the AIDS virus, based on limited testing before Meese’s program began. The government estimated in June that 2,300 incoming and 2,300 departing prisoners would be tested each month.

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