concerned about AIDS and prisoners' rights, it's an urgent,
commonsense step that should already be nationwide policy --
letting inmates have condoms to reduce the spread of
sexually transmitted diseases behind bars.
Yet their efforts
have run headlong into a stronger political force:
Authorities' desire not to encourage inmates who flout
prison rules against sex. Only one state, Vermont, and
five cities regularly hand out condoms to inmates.
Mississippi does so only for inmates receiving
conjugal visits from their spouses.
Left out are the
vast majority of America's 2.2 million prisoners -- many
held in facilities where sex between men is common and the
risk of STDs is far higher than in the general
''I realize this
is not a comfortable topic for many people, but it's one
we simply cannot afford to ignore,'' said Rep. Barbara Lee,
a California Democrat. ''When more than 90% of
incarcerated people return to our communities, taking
a head-in-the-sand approach to the fact that our
prisons have become a breeding ground for HIV/AIDS poses a
serious public health risk.''
warnings, recent efforts to expand behind-bars condom access
have gone almost nowhere. Prison officials contend that
condoms can be used to conceal drugs, and
law-and-order politicians scoff at what they depict as
a step that would encourage both consensual and coercive
freedoms of criminals is in itself a deterrent,'' said
California assemblyman Paul Cook. ''Allowing condoms into
prisons simply sends the wrong message and confirms
what we all suspect: Our prison system has serious and
severe behavioral and inmate-control issues.''
introduced by Lee in Congress this year to allow condom
access in federal prisons has made little headway. A
bill in Illinois failed to clear a legislative
committee in March. And a bill in California was
vetoed last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said
the proposal conflicted with prison regulations
banning sexual activity.
Yet Ron Snyder,
an HIV-positive Californian who served 19 months in the
state's prison systems for embezzlement, said sex was
widespread despite the rules. Some inmates used rubber
gloves as makeshift condoms, and some supervisors
allowed romantically involved men to share cells, he said.
in his veto message, offered a ray of hope to advocates
of condom access. He described it as ''not an unreasonable
public policy'' and instructed corrections officials
to assess the feasibility of a pilot program at a
yet-to-be-selected state prison.
a ''tough struggle'' to extend any such program
systemwide because of staff attitudes. Many of the
correctional officers are from rural areas, ''and they
assume men don't have sex with men,'' he said. ''They
just don't understand the picture.''
already is home to two of the local condom programs, at
jails in Los Angeles and San Francisco. New York,
Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., also have programs
-- New York's dates back to 1987.
In Los Angeles
the condoms are distributed by an activist group, the
Center for Health Justice, only in a special unit reserved
for gay men who ask to be assigned there. San
Francisco, for nearly 20 years, has allowed prisoners
to be issued condoms by the health staff; distribution
was expanded in April in the form of a condom-dispensing
machine placed in a jail recreation hall.
Mary Sylla, the
Center for Health Justice's policy director, said there
have been no security problems in either city.
''If there was a
case of somebody doing something horrible with a condom,
we would have heard about it -- it would be all over the
corrections community,'' she said. ''But it doesn't
disappointed by Schwarzenegger's veto, Sylla is hopeful that
a pilot program will indeed get started in the state
prison system. She said corrections officials already
had visited the Los Angeles unit to see that local
program in action.
acknowledged that the cause is tough to promote.
''It's easy to
make fun of,'' she said. ''People don't like to think
about prisoners having sex, even though everybody knows it
Corrections Department, although it holds relatively few
HIV-positive inmates, has been making condoms available in
prisons since 1992 -- even though sexual activity
remains officially prohibited.
courageous position that Vermont took then and continues to
have now,'' said the department's health services
director, Dolores Burroughs-Biron.
program, inmates are granted a single condom at a time if
they request one from a nurse. Burroughs-Biron said
there had been no reports of any security problems.
officials insist there are dangers. Glenn Goord, New York
State's former corrections commissioner, told the
legislature that inmates use condoms to transport
drugs within prison grounds. He also said condoms
might embolden prison rapists, who could use them to avoid
leaving DNA evidence after their assaults.
There is no
authoritative U.S. data on the extent of HIV behind bars,
but the federal Centers for Disease Control did
conduct a detailed study in Georgia which found that
856 male inmates -- about 2% of the state's total --
were HIV-positive, and that 76 of them apparently got the
virus while in prison.
The CDC report,
published last year, suggested that lawmakers consider
the condom policy.
the CDC epidemiologist who led the study, said sex
among inmates was common in Georgia despite being
prohibited. He said many of the sexually active
inmates used condoms -- or some improvised substitute
-- even though they were considered contraband.
foreign countries -- including Canada, Australia, and much
of Western Europe -- condoms have been freely
distributed to prisoners for years without security
are convinced condom access would reduce STD
transmission, they are cautious in making specific health
''I don't know
how we'd ever be able to prove how much they reduce HIV,''
said Ron Snyder, who now works for the Center for Health
Justice. ''But if we could affect one or two people
who wouldn't bring it back to their women when they
get home, that's dramatic impact right there.'' (David