Condoms = Contraband, according to law

By Terry Keleher Mar 30, 2007

Last week, an Illinois House Committee, by a single vote, rejected an HIV prevention measure (HB 686) that would have allowed condom distribution among the 45,000 inmates in the state’s prisons. Despite an alarming HIV infection rate in prisons across the nation, efforts to provide access to condoms to incarcerated populations continue to stall. Most public health experts consider condoms an essential part of preventing HIV and the spread of other sexually transmitted infections. And while some places, including Vermont, Washington, D.C, Los Angeles and San Francisco, allow limited condom distribution, most states classify condoms in prison as—brace yourself for this one– contraband. But how long can prison law continue to be out of touch with reality? Making condoms contraband is as equally flawed as the failed “Just Say No” to drugs and sex campaigns that have tragically substituted sound sex education and drug prevention policies. It’s time to just say no more to twisted notions of morality and legality taking precedence over public health and human lives. Predictably, prison condom bills have attracted strong opposition from law-and-order bureaucrats in state Departments of Corrections, get-tough-on-crime lawmakers and the just-say-no-to-nearly-every-kind-of-sex moralists (like the Traditional Values Coalition, which opposed the California legislation). But the bills have also attracted some less predictable opponents like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that represents correctional officers. ASCME Council 31 opposed the Illinois legislation because, as they see it, the job of their members is to enforce prison rules, including the ban on sex. So, by this logic, condoms would send the wrong message. In other words, the laws of the prisons are more important than the lives of the prisoners, especially when they are disproportionately people of color. African Americans comprised 15% of Illinois’ population in 2001 but nearly two-thirds (65%) of the state’s prisoners. This mirrors national patterns where, in 2000, African Americans accounted for approximately 12% of the U.S. population but comprised nearly 44% of the 2 million Americans behind bars. Last October, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill (AB 1677) that would have allowed condom distribution in California prisons. And in January, Rep. Barbara Lee introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress (HR 178) that would provide HIV counseling and prevention education efforts and the distribution of “sexual barrier protection devices” in federal prisons, but the bill has languished, attracting only one other co-sponsor. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, AIDS prevalence among inmates is triple that of the general U.S. population. And, nearly 25% of people with HIV in the U.S. annually pass through correctional facilities. A Center for Disease Control study released in April 2006 conducted among male inmates in Georgia prisons found that at least 88 inmates became HIV-positive while incarcerated.