AIDS and Prisons in North Carolina, 1985-1991


Data from National Institute of Justice

By Cassie McMillan

The AIDS epidemic had detrimental effects on the worldwide LGBT community. One particular facet of this community that was affected by the epidemic was LGBT prison inmates. The prison system prevented LGBT inmates from receiving current information about AIDS or comprehensive education about AIDS transmission. This lack of information is particularly troubling because the rate of AIDS in prison has historically been higher among prison inmates than in the general population[1].

National Institute of Justice Reports 1986 and 1990

In 1986, the National Institute of Justice, a research oriented sub-agency of the Department of Justice[2], published its first report on the state of AIDS in the American prison system entitled “AIDS in Prisons and Jails: Issues and Options.” The report presented the findings of a national survey of state correctional departments, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and some large city and county jail systems. The survey asked questions about the prevalence of AIDS among inmate populations and about the manner in which the epidemic was being handled[3]. Later in 1990, a follow-up report was published that was based on a similar set of data. Collectively, these reports claim that from 1981 to 1991 there were around 5,000 reported cases of AIDS among American inmates and stressed that this number would continue to rise[4].

Focus on Risk Groups

Several themes continuously reappear in the two reports. First, AIDS is constantly framed as a problem only affecting specific risk groups. In explaining how the virus evolves, the 1986 report concludes that, “current infection with the virus is considered much greater for individuals in identified AIDS risk groups [such as] homosexual or bisexual males and intravenous drug users[5]." This reoccurring language frames AIDS as a disease found in certain individuals, gay and bisexual men and IV drug users, as opposed to explaining how it can be transmitted through certain actions. Therefore, the individuals are further stigmatized as opposed to risky actions, like unprotected sex and the sharing of needles.


Photo of Stateville Correction Facility where Moneyhan resided. Courtesy of

Lacking Educational Programs

Both reports also discuss the importance of AIDS education within the prison system. However, the educational options supported by both reports appear to be more focused on reassuring prison staff and other inmates that do not fall into “risk categories,” as opposed to providing actual information about AIDS prevention. In the 1986 report it is suggested that effective education programs, including presentations and videos, should primarily “provide the opportunity to counteract misinformation, rumors, and fear concerning the disease[6].” Providing accurate information to those infected with AIDS or at risk of contracting it was seen as less important. Similarly, data from the 1991 survey suggested that education programs for prison staff were far more common as they were provided in over two-thirds of prisons, while education programs for inmates appeared in less than half of the prisons surveyed. These educational programs provided to staff primarily focused on “specific risks and precautionary measures,” while inmates were often left in the dark about news regarding the AIDS epidemic[1].

Denial of Sexual Activity

One reason that AIDS prevention was not a part of educational programs within the prison systems was because officials constantly denied that sexual activity was occurring with in prisons. As the earlier report points out, “there is substantial debate, but little hard data, on the extent to which the AIDS virus is being transmitted within correctional institutions [because] the two primary means of transmission [intravenous drug use and homosexual intercourse] are prohibited behavior in all correctional systems[5],” implying that because sexual activity is prohibited in prisons, it is an issue that can largely be ignored. The later report does show signs of some progress. According to the survey there were five prisons in the United States that had begun to hand out condoms to their inmates. However, the report warns this may lead inmates to think that the state is condoning sexual activity between members of the same-sex within prisons.

While these reports do not specifically focus on the state of prisons in North Carolina, they were distributed to correctional institutions around the state and to different departments of the state government. The research and conclusions made by the National Institute of Justice clearly had an effect on inmates in North Carolina prisons, as can be seen in the following case examples.

Letters from Steve Moneyhan

Steve Moneyhan was a self-identified gay inmate residing in the Statesville Correctional Center of North Carolina during the mid-1980s. In 1985 he wrote a letter to the North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Health Project (LGHP), a non-profit founded in 1982 that provided educational resources about LGBT health issues, particularly HIV/AIDS[7]. Moneyhan’s original letter to LGHP asks for up to date information on AIDS and “other maladies of particular concern to gay males[8].” He explains that, as a prisoner committed to the NC dept. of corrections, I find accurate information difficult to obtain[8],” confirming the lack of substance provided in educational programs offered by NC prisons. Inmates, such as Moneyhan, were isolated from receiving accurate information about the AIDS epidemic as these issues were not being discussed in the correctional facility where he resided.

A later letter sent by Moneyhan on August 20, 1985 thanks the LGHP for sending him information. He apologizes for taking so long to respond, attributing this delay to the difficulty of obtaining postage stamps in prisons. He then explains how he has “shared the information with other gays here, (and some who claim to be ‘straight’), and everyone has enjoyed it[9].” From this response letter it is clear that receiving information about AIDS was a difficult process. Inmates had to reach out to outside organizations, such as the LGHP. Because they lacked basic resources, like stamps, this action itself was difficult and time consuming and undoubtedly caused many obstacles for LGBT inmates. Also, Moneyhan’s letter confirms that sexual activity was occurring in prisons and that it was not just occurring among members of risk groups, but also among self-identified straight men as well.

Letters from Gail Willis

Gail Willis was an inmate in the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW) during the late 1980s. She identified herself as a lesbian and, like Moneyhan, she sent a letter to the LGHP reaching out for information about the AIDS epidemic. Willis showed concern about her sexual health by explaining that she had “never seen any documents on lesbians have passed the virus to their partner[10]” She explains how she is unaware about how the AIDS epidemic has affected lesbians by stating that she “would like to know if by chance the percentage is high for a woman to pass in to another in sex”(letter). Willis’s letter shows how little AIDS was being discussed in NCCIW. She was unable to get information from NCCIW about her health concerns because environment was not conducive to addressing LGBT health issues.


  1. Theodore Hammett and Saira Moini, “Update on AIDS in Prisons and Jails” (Pamphlet, Washington D.C., 1990), 4.
  2. "About NIJ" National Institute of Justice April 4, 2011.
  3. Theodore Hammett, “AIDS in Prisons and Jails: Issues and Options” (Pamphlet, Washington D.C., 1986), 1.
  4. Theodore Hammett and Saira Moini, “Update on AIDS in Prisons and Jails” (Pamphlet, Washington D.C., 1990), 1.
  5. Theodore Hammett, “AIDS in Prisons and Jails: Issues and Options” (Pamphlet, Washington D.C., 1986), 2.
  6. Theodore Hammett, “AIDS in Prisons and Jails: Issues and Options” (Pamphlet, Washington D.C., 1986), 3.
  7. "Inventory of the North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Health Project Records, 1983-1996" Duke University Libraries December 17, 1999.
  8. Steve Moneyhan, letter to NC LGHP, 1985
  9. Steve Moneyhan, letter to NC LGHP, August 20, 1985
  10. Gail Willis, letter to NC LGHP, January 25, 1991