California Follows Vermont in Providing Condoms to State Prisoners

George LavenderFebruary 19, 2015

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.

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