California Follows Vermont in Providing Condoms to State Prisoners

George Lavender

A line for condoms inside Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles, Calif.

One in seven people living with HIV passes through a correctional facility each year, according to the CDC. In California alone more than 1,000 prisoners are known to be HIV positive. People in prison are also disproportionately at risk of contracting other sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.

For years, health organizations have recommended providing condoms to prisoners to help slow the spread of these diseases. While several foreign prisons do make them available, here in the US only two states and a handful of jails currently provide condoms to prisoners. That’s in part because sex between prisoners is against prison rules in every state, and actually a crime in some.

In this report for Al Jazeera America, I visited one of the few locked settings that does provide condoms to prisoners: Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles.

Do you guys want condoms?” Deputy Javier Machado, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, asks a dormitory full of prisoners in the Men’s Central Jail. If you want condoms you need to get in line. If not, I need you on your bunk.”

A worker with the county’s Public Health Department places a box full of brightly colored condoms on a table and begins to hand them out, three at a time. Waiting in line, one prisoner loudly declares that he’s getting the condoms for someone else,” drawing laughter from the others. The distribution takes only a matter of minutes, but the weekly act is hardly typical.

While Los Angeles has been handing out condoms in the county jail for more than a decade, it remains one of just a handful of jail and prison systems that do so. In September, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown took a step toward making condoms more widely available, signing a bill that will introduce them at the state’s 34 adult prisons. As in most states, the jails in California are short-term facilities run by county sheriffs, while the prison system, which holds prisoners after they’ve been sentenced, is managed by the state government. Continue reading…

It was third time lucky for a bill to make condoms available in California prisons. Two previous versions of the legislation had been vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger and Governor Brown. While some states provide condoms for conjugal visits, California is only the second state in the country to officially provide inmates with condoms specifically for sex with other prisoners.

In 1987, Vermont’s Department of Corrections gave notice that it would allow condom distribution in its prisons, a shift in policy that was directly related to concern regarding transmission of AIDS,” according to the memo announcing the change. Under that policy, which remains in effect, Vermont prisoners can request a condom from a nurse in a one-on-one meeting. Delores Burroughs-Biron, who directs health services for the Vermont corrections department, says she welcomes the California act: Good for them. If we really want to take care of people not just in the short term but the long term, then one of the things that we do is to make sure their health is protected.”

The World Health Organization recommends that condoms be provided in prison and jails, something several other countries already do, but prisons in the United States have been slow to follow suit. With the signing of the Prisoner Protections for Family and Community Health Act, California’s prison system becomes the largest in the United States to allow condoms to be distributed in its facilities. The act requires the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a five-year plan to expand the availability of condoms in all California prisons. Continue reading…

During a pilot study on providing condoms in one California state prison, officials looked to San Francisco’s decades old program as a model. In this KQED report staff and prisoners at the jail talk about how they feel about condoms being available, as well as some of the more unusual uses prisoners have found for condoms.

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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