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Health care in the lockup isn’t what it used to be. It’s better. This month, the federal Centers for Disease Control reported that AIDS-related deaths among New York inmates have fallen dramatically.

The biggest drop–a 67 percent decline in one year–came between 1996 and 1997, when the state Department of Correctional Services started to pay attention to the needs of HIV positive prisoners. The pace of the fall-off is comparable to the decline in AIDS deaths in the general population. It’s an indication that prisoners are getting better access to health care.

Before that year, the AIDS death rate had held steady since the beginning of the decade, at 36.4 per 10,000 prisoners. The disease used to account for two-thirds of all inmate deaths.

In 1996 the state made major changes in inmate care, writing HIV treatment guidelines, starting monthly staff education, and developing a system to follow the care of prisoners. Subsequently, the department began strict monitoring of medical staff.

“[The improvements were] a response to pressure from outside groups and the recognition on their part of the special needs of the group,” said Robert Gangi, executive director of the prison watchdog Correctional Association of New York.