Penal Violations

Texas prisons say they canít allow condoms because they donít allow sex. So they donít need condoms. They just need $12 million a year to treat all the HIV-positive prisoners.

But with such a disproportionate number of HIV-positive people passing through prison, Hammett says, "these are natural and really critical places to have the best interventions you can possibly have. That's it in a nutshell, I think."

Kelly McCann of AIDS Foundation Houston agrees with Hammett that wardens are nervous about the condom issue.

"It's still such a conservative atmosphere and homosexuality still has such a stigma attached to it," she says. "I think wardens privately will acknowledge that sex is going on...But publicly, I think they hesitate to talk about it because, as one warden said to me, 'If we admit that sex is going on, then we're admitting failure in our security role.'"

Harris figures he's infected ten inmates.
Craig Malisow
Harris figures he's infected ten inmates.
Mitchell: Buying condoms would save the state money in the long run.
John Anderson
Mitchell: Buying condoms would save the state money in the long run.

But McCann is proud of the Wall Talk program, as well as the foundation's ability to link released HIV-positive offenders with medical programs in their hometowns.

Hammett also has given Wall Talk good marks; in 2004, he was part of a team that evaluated it for the Journal of Correctional Health Care.

"All of the wardens indicated a desire to continue the program due to the positive changes observed in both peer educators and the general prison population," the evaluation states. "Some examples of the changes were less violent behavior, increased awareness of HIV risks, and greater concern and less fear demonstrated toward those with HIV."

Also, "one of the most important reported benefits of the program was the diffusion of HIV-related knowledge to those outside the prison. Not only did offenders share information among themselves, but they also wrote to family members...about HIV prevention."

So far, Wall Talk looks like a success. This year, TDCJ and AIDS Foundation Houston launched another program -- one that doesn't target HIV directly but aims to change entire aspects of prison culture.

To be aware is to be alive.

It's written in marker on white butcher paper taped to a chalkboard here in this prison classroom. The paper matches the rumpled white two-piece outfits worn by the 30 or so new guests of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Most are sitting in one-piece chair-desktop combos, listening to a stout bald man with a mustache talk about prison rape.

It's a little before 7 p.m. in TDCJ's Holliday Unit in Huntsville, where incoming inmates take part in TDCJ's brand-new Safe Prisons Program. It's a typical classroom: tiled floor, colorful educational posters tacked to clean white walls. The man with the mustache, wearing a blue TDCJ polo shirt with jeans, is Holliday's safety officer. He asked that his name not be used.

In a heavy twang, he asks how many in the room are first-timers. About seven raise their hands. These are the New Boots, the ones who are going to have to learn that things in state are different than in county. They will learn that prison doesn't have to be about getting sold or getting punked, if you retrain your brain.

Launched in 2006, Safe Prisons is another program pioneered by TDCJ and AIDS Foundation Houston. It was designed in response to the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act and, like Wall Talk, allows incoming prisoners to learn from long-timers.

Before the safety officer hands it over to these long-timers, he's got a few things to say by way of introduction.

"When you come to prison, you got this preconceived notion that" -- and here he rips into auctioneer speed -- "I-don't-know-nothin'-don't-hear-nothin'-don't-see-nothin'-it-ain't-my-business-I-ain't-gettin'-involved-in-it, right? Well... that's a good concept -- if you're trying to stay in prison or you want to spend the rest of your life in prison."

He continues: "You've got an opportunity right now to do something that's going to help the people that's going to be in prison tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day, 20 years from now."

And then he tells a story. It's about a mountain of an inmate; six foot five, 295. Had to walk through the crash gate sideways.

"I sat out there on the rec yard, watched this man push 500 pounds off his chest," he says. "How many of y'all think you can deal with that guy?"

Above the chattering and laughter, a lean black New Boot in the back corner says, "Give me something to stick him with, I'll try."

"You're absolutely right," the safety officer says. "But if you're of the male species, you already have something to stick him with, because that's exactly what he wants."

Laughter, clapping, groans.

"Look here," he continues. "If you didn't have sex with him and him be the...passive partner and you take charge, that dude would beat you within an inch of your life."

Now he flips the script on New Boots. Now the mountain wants you to be the woman. Are you still going to stick him and buy yourself some more years?

"I ain't just gonna lay down and let him have me," New Boots says, his voice getting louder, defensive, like he's being pushed further back into his corner. "I'm a man. Ain't no man gonna lay down."

That's when a tall, bald black inmate standing beside him steps forward and says in a quiet but authoritative voice, "Brother, you'd be surprised how many would lay down."

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