Condoms in the clink

California passes law to provide condoms in state prisons; backers say measure is necessary for public health

A Los Angeles County Department of Public Health worker with condoms for weekly distribution to inmates in the Men’s Central Jail.
George Lavender

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.

With its new law, California is only the second state, after Vermont, to distribute condoms to inmates in state prisons. (New York state provides them to legally married prisoners during extended visits and to prisoners on temporary release.)

Providing condoms to prisoners is controversial because many state laws prohibit sex between inmates. In California, Section 286(e) of the penal code outlaws “sodomy with any person of any age while confined in any state prison ... or in any local detention facility.” But some prisons and jails have decided to allow prisoners to have condoms as a way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

“It definitely is a balance,” says Capt. Joseph Dempsey at the Men’s Central Jail. “The Sheriff’s Department has taken the position that public health outweighs the concerns about sex in jail.” According to Dempsey, if prisoners are caught having sex, a criminal report will still be filed. But if the sex is consensual, he says, it is “not very likely” the district attorney will prosecute the inmates involved.

‘If it’s going to happen, you might as well make it be safe.’

Ronald Osorio

Center for Health Justice

Condom distributions happen on Fridays at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles.
George Lavender

Los Angeles has the largest jail system in the United States, with more than 18,000 detainees at any one time. In the Men’s Central Jail, condoms are only available to the 400 or so prisoners in the gay and transgender unit, K6G. Sex is still prohibited here as it is elsewhere in the facility, but it occurs nonetheless.

“You cannot live with your head in the sand,” says one inmate, Dino Baglioni, who is dressed in the powder-blue uniform used to distinguish K6G detainees from the general population. “Many that come in young and healthy leave ill, and so it makes perfectly good sense to try and provide as much protection as you can.” Across the United States, prisoners are disproportionately at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.

Sharing a dormitory with about 140 other detainees, Baglioni says that he’s “just not comfortable having sex here in a public environment.” Despite that, he takes condoms during distributions “because you never know. Better safe than sorry.”

“If it’s going to happen, you might as well make it be safe,” says Ronald Osorio, special-projects director at the Center for Health Justice, a nonprofit organization focused on prisoners and their families. Osorio knows firsthand about the dangers of unprotected sex in prison, having spent 19 months inside California correctional facilities.

Osorio already knew he was HIV positive when he went to prison in 1999. “At that time, you were known as being ‘radioactive,’” he says. “I was always careful. I was only with two or three people when I was in there … My big concern was [hepatitis C], because I’m hep C negative and that’s the way I wanted to stay.” He says that some prisoners were aware they needed to use protection, “but there was nothing available at the time.” Without access to condoms, Osorio says, some would resort to Saran Wrap or elastic bands and plastic bags.

Nationally, one in seven people living with HIV passes through a correctional facility each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California alone, more than 1,000 prisoners are known to be HIV positive. It’s not just HIV/AIDS that health officials are concerned about, though. An outbreak of syphilis in one California prison from 2007 to 2008 saw the disease spread to 30 prisoners over 16 months.

“That condoms work is not a mystery,” says Los Angeles jail epidemiologist Garrett Cox who accompanied the public health workers in the Los Angeles jail as they went from dormitory to dormitory to distribute condoms. Cox believes condoms have reduced transmission inside the jail. Condom provision can also have a ripple effect on public health as a whole, he says, since “most of these men and women here are not going to prison; they’re not going to have an extended sentence. They’re going to be released and be back out in the community.”

Mixed reactions among inmates

While a few prisons have provided condoms for couples on conjugal visits, it was the HIV/AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s that led to condoms being distributed more widely to 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.

Making condoms available to prisoners “will literally save lives,” according to the act’s author, California Assembly Member Rob Bonta. For him, the new law is “a no-brainer”: Condoms provide “a low-cost method universally acknowledged to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.” It was third-time lucky for a condom-distribution bill in the state; previous bills had been vetoed by both Gov. Jerry Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But among inmates inside California’s oldest prison, San Quentin, the idea of condoms being made available brings a mixed response. “It’s only logical to put things in place to keep people safe, but me personally, I’m completely against it, because I don’t encourage homosexuality in prison,” says Sha Wallace-Stepter, an inmate in the prison north of San Francisco.

In particular, Wallace-Stepter says, he is concerned about condoms encouraging rape. Earlier versions of Bonta’s bill faced opposition from lawmakers for that very reason. But prison and jail officials in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vermont, as well as health workers involved in a pilot project in a California state prison, say there does not appear to be a correlation between the two. In fact, the only unsanctioned use of condoms reported in San Francisco’s jails has been prisoners using them as hair ties, or blowing them up for balloons or pillows.

When condoms were first introduced in San Francisco, there were concerns they would be filled with urine and feces and used as weapons against guards, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi says, but no so-called gassing attacks have taken place.

As California moves to provide condoms to its prison population, representatives of the nation’s two other largest prison systems, Texas and the federal Bureau of Prisons, say their departments have no plans to do the same. Mirkarimi blames homophobia and a “punitive culture” opposed to prisoners having sex for the lack of condom-distribution programs.

Almost 300 condoms were distributed to inmates in the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles on a recent October Friday. Captain Dempsey says he was initially “taken aback” when he first heard that the Sheriff’s Department was allowing the distribution. Now, though, he’s “100 percent for it” and says he’s optimistic about the introduction in the state’s prisons. “If it works here I’m sure it will work in the state prison.”

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