Prison sentences for men could increase HIV rates back home

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According to a recent study, male incarceration could lead to higher rates of STDs within their communities.

The research was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine on Tuesday, and was lead by Dr. Andrea Knittel. Knittel and her team used a computer model to track how sexual behavior changes within a simulated community of 250 individuals, split evenly between men and women.

Their results point to a clear link between jail time for men and relationship instability, even when incarceration rates are relatively low. From the paper:

The results from these model experiments suggest that incarceration can cause an increase in the number of sexual partnerships at the community level over five years with rates of incarceration as low as 12%.


This is not the first time that high incarceration rates have been linked to HIV—Elsevier, which publishes Social Sciences & Medicine points out that this study is different because it's looking for a causal relationship between prison and sexual disease, rather than just a correlation. Elsevier explains that in the past, researchers have linked both HIV rates and an increase in sexual partners to incarceration rates — but that few others have attempted to see how incarceration rates may have influenced these factors.

It might seem strange to use a computer model to examine human behavior, but the scientists involved point out that there's not really a better way to conduct this kind of research. The authors explain in their paper that "experimental design would be unethical," and that "computational approaches provide a closed system in which to test hypotheses, and, as such, can suggest important avenues for policy and research."

They explain their decision to examine male incarceration rates over female ones (or both) a realistic—American men are much more likely to spend time in prison than women.

The simulation does not explicitly look at how STDs and HIV are linked to incarcerations rates. But the researchers argue that the study can explain why there is an increase in HIV in communities with higher rates of male incarceration than in communities with lower such rates, and think that more severe sentences can make the problem worse.


Knittel explained in a statement that her team's findings should be taken as a referendum on the U.S.'s criminal justice system. "The results, " she said, "suggest that reducing incarceration and creating a more open criminal justice system that supports the maintenance of inmates’ relationships to reduce instability of partnerships for men who are incarcerated may have important sexual health and public health implications.”

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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