Penal Violations

When asked how many times he stabbed the old man, Daniel Harris says, "Once. To start with."

Fourteen years ago, Harris had a girlfriend who had an uncle, and she wanted the uncle dead. So, Harris says, he and the girlfriend went to the 78-year-old's Virginia home, where Harris stabbed him 37 times. He took a .22 from the man's pocket, a .357 from his chair, and a .45, .38 and Glock stashed around the house. They spent the next few months driving from state to state, buying and selling antiques for cash.

Then came Dallas.

An antiques dealer there thought they were acting funny, so the dealer called the cops. When the cops arrived, Harris and his girl hauled ass. A 60-mile chase followed, with the girlfriend flooring it and Harris shooting like a lunatic out the window. He hit about a dozen vehicles, including a cop car, but no one was killed. Harris got a bullet in the wrist and 35 years.

Harris says that sentence was shifted to life, when he contracted HIV in prison.

Speaking from behind glass in a closet-sized visiting booth in the Ellis Unit, Harris is nonchalant about his illness. He says his HIV meds are working; for the past five years, he's had a normal CD-4 count.

Harris, who considers himself bisexual, is convinced he was infected in prison. In 1994, Harris says, he got into a disagreement with an Aryan Nation leader out to recruit him. Harris didn't want to be a part of the gang. At six feet, 200 pounds, Harris can handle a disagreement. Afterward, the bloody pulps wound up in the hospital, where routine tests showed Harris was HIV-negative.

He says that, in 2000, after another of many skirmishes, he was diagnosed with HIV. Was it the consensual sex, the coerced sex or one of the bloody fights? Harris doesn't know. But he got it from someone and, by his count, gave it to ten other someones.

"The numbers are a lot higher than they're telling you," Harris says in a warm, soft Alabama drawl. "They're not testing, and if you don't ask to be tested, you don't get tested. So you've got a lot of people that have this and they don't know. They don't want to know."

As for the ones who do know, there are 2,676 of them out of a total Texas prison population of 152,158. Nationally, the prevalence of HIV among prisoners is five times that of the general public.

As of August, 808 HIV-positive offenders were released from Texas prisons. Forty percent of all HIV-positive offenders released this year will wind up in Houston. Hopefully, they'll practice safe sex in the outside world. Behind bars, they aren't allowed to have sex, but they do. And, for the most part, it isn't safe.

What makes it even riskier, condoms aren't allowed in Texas prisons. Nothing out of the ordinary there; most prisons around the country don't allow rubbers. Even if they would protect against all manner of infection and death. Even if they cost mere pennies apiece.

In Texas, a pioneering peer-education class called Wall Talk tells incoming inmates about HIV prevention.

The program, designed in part by AIDS Foundation Houston, aims to tell prisoners how to protect themselves on both the inside and outside. There is, for example, a demonstration of how to put on a condom. But the models for this procedure are a tube sock and an arm. The presence of condoms, Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials explain, would violate the department's zero-tolerance stance on sex behind bars.

This policy won them an award from ACT UP Austin, an advocacy group that wants TDCJ to make condoms available. In August, members of the group showed up outside the department's administrative offices in Huntsville with a three-foot World Cup-type trophy acknowledging the department's "Commitment to Ensuring the Spread of HIV."

"They never actually came down to accept the award, so we'll have to find a way to get it to them later," says ACT UP member Heather Mitchell from Austin.

For Mitchell, it's a no-brainer: "Prisoners are engaging in sex and condoms are a proven HIV-prevention tool, so it just makes sense that providing condoms is going to decrease the number of infections. And from a public health standpoint, anything that decreases HIV infection is a good idea."

Mitchell points out that condoms would be a cheap way of combating the spread of HIV. Her group cites a 2001 report from the state comptroller's office that states that "drug therapy for the 2,500 Texas prisoners who are HIV-positive costs the state about $1 million a month -- about 40 percent of TDCJ's total medical cost -- and that does not include hospital or practitioner fees."

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow