By DAN LAMOTHE, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - The number of Maryland inmates diagnosed with AIDS doubled between 2004 and 2005, giving the state the highest percentage of inmate AIDS cases in the nation, according to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The number of documented AIDS cases in Maryland's corrections system jumped from 204 to 408, the report said. Overall, 1.8 percent of Maryland's inmate population had been diagnosed at the end of 2005, surpassing New York, Delaware and Connecticut, which diagnosed 1.1 percent of its inmates.
"It's really a call to action for Maryland to look into its AIDS prison population," said Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. "Maryland hasn't been doing well in overseeing its private health care contractors, and this is one small piece of the puzzle that reflects the need to insure adequate health care for Maryland's prisoners."
Prisoner rights advocates called the numbers disturbing, particularly since other states with established AIDS problems, such as New York, saw its AIDS cases decline. Nationally, the number of estimated inmate AIDS cases declined from 5,969 to 5,620, a 5.8 percent decrease.
The numbers also puzzled some, since Maryland's combined HIV/AIDS cases declined from 792 to 671 during the same time frame, a 15.3 percent decrease.
The 671 combined cases accounted for 3 percent of Maryland's inmates, placing it behind New York (7 percent) and Florida (3.9 percent) for the second year in a row. Nationally, the number of HIV/AIDS cases declined from 22,560 to 22,263, a 1.3 percent decrease.
Nine states did not report inmate AIDS results: Rhode Island, Missouri, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Alaska, Nevada and Oregon.
In a prepared statement, Richard Rosenblatt, assistant secretary for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said a "high rate of HIV should be expected," given the frequency of drug needle use in the Baltimore area.
"We are currently filling about 1,750 prescriptions per month for just under 700 inmates' HIV medications," he said. The medication cost about $850,000 in August alone, said Mark A. Vernarelli, department spokesman.
Vernarelli said officials handling public health issues for the Division of Correction were unavailable to comment on why AIDS diagnosis skyrocketed while overall HIV diagnoses declined.
But health officials have not changed the way they diagnose the disease, said Heather Hauck, director of the Maryland AIDS Administration, through a spokesman.
The report's release comes seven months after a 54-page performance audit called for by the Maryland General Assembly cited the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' Office of Inmate Health Services for a variety of flaws and errors. Among them: The office did not provide enough oversight on outside medical contractors working with inmates and dispensed the wrong medication to inmates 109 times in five months.
Dworak-Fisher wondered whether the increase in AIDS diagnoses stemmed from the department keeping better track of patients, and said she hopes it creates new dialog between the public health community and state officials.
"We need to realize this is going to be a population that is with us, and we have to treat them," Dworak-Fisher said.
Stephen Meehan, principal counsel for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc., which provides legal representation to inmates, said other than maintaining security, providing health care is the No. 1 challenge the state faces with inmates.
Inmates have "had poor health care and poor dental care their whole lives, in many cases," Meehan said. "I don't know that you can wave a magic wand and fix things."
The Baltimore area—including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's counties—had the second highest rate of AIDS in the country in 2005, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, with 40.4 diagnoses per 100,000 people.
Baltimore City had 14,346 diagnosed cases at the end of 2004, accounting for 50 percent of the state's cases, according to a 2005 report released by the Maryland AIDS Administration.