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To have and have not
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 10/20/2008

1013chesscondom In California the laws about sexual activity inside prisons are simple; inmates cannot have sex and they cannot have condoms. Therefore, the state’s ban on “sexual barrier devices” in prisons might make sense in terms of the law, but officials are less certain about whether or not the policy is right for the health of the inmates and outside communities.

This month, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will embark on a one-year pilot program testing the use of condom vending machines. Approximately 1,000 inmates living in Facility II at California State Prison, Solano will have access to the machines.

“This is going to be the most comprehensive review of a condom access program for prisoners ever done,” says Mary Sylla, Policy and Advocacy Director for the Los Angeles-based Center for Health Justice (CHJ). The non-profit is running the pilot with CDCR.

“Condom access is available in only a few facilities and to only a subset of prisoners in those facilities throughout the country,” Sylla adds. “And in our jails and prisons, HIV rates are rising.”

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger initiated the program last October after he vetoed a bill requiring CDCR to allow non profit and public agencies to distribute condoms to state prison inmates to reduce the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. In the veto, the governor directed CDCR to determine the risk and viability of a condom distribution program and to identify one state prison to conduct a pilot.

At no cost to the state, CHJ will purchase and install the machines, which cost $200 each. The small, wall-mounted dispensers are set to vend for free. Inmates are allowed to have one condom at a time. Having more than one, storing them, or using them as contraband constitutes an infraction. As part of the pilot, rule infractions involving the machines will be tracked.

“A research team from the California Department of Health will determine how operationally the machines affect the facility, if people are using the condoms, and whether or not risky sexual behavior is reduced,” Sylla explains. “If the pilot is successful, after one year the governor may consider expanding the project to more state prisons.”

According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, condoms are provided to inmates in county jails in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, and in state prisons in Vermont and Mississippi. The manner in which condoms are made available varies from state to state. Facilities tend to distribute them through the commissary, health education classes, or one-on-one sessions with health educators. Using dispensing machines, however, is a new approach.

“The machines will grant inmates more anonymous access to condoms than when they have to ask for one at a health education class or during a meeting with a health educator,” says Sylla.

There is evidence the machines also do a better job advertising condom access. From April to August 2007, the San Francisco County Jail installed a dispensing machine in a gym that 800 inmates access. CHJ documented the trial run.

“Before we put up the machine in San Francisco, we asked the inmates in a survey if they were aware they had access to a condom,” Sylla says. “Only 12 percent knew they could get a condom by having a one-on-one session with a health educator. But after installing the machine, 88 percent knew they had access.”

The jail still has the dispensing machine in its gym. The CSP-Solano pilot will offer the first substantial data collection regarding condom vending machines. It is also furthering the dialogue about the legal and ethical implications of condom access for prisoners.

“Sexual activity while incarcerated is against the law,” says CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton. “In giving inmates access to condoms during this pilot, CDCR is not implying acceptance of or condoning sexual activity within its prisons.”

DOCs might be hesitant to condone pilot programs like these because introducing condoms into prison could have negative consequences. Mew items in a correctional environment may inadvertently give inmates the tools to create, store or convey contraband. Condoms could also be used to commit sexual assault against another inmate and prevent the recovery of any evidence.

Furthermore, in a rules-based environment it seems contradictory to tell inmates that sex is illegal but then give them something used to engage in the activity. It’s a conundrum, Sylla says, that nearly everyone involved struggles to make sense of.

“It’s a huge challenge,” she admits. “We need to take what may seem to be a slightly hypocritical stance, but to act like sex in prison is never going to happen simply because the law says it’s illegal is unrealistic.”

“I say to corrections folks, ‘You guys have an undoable job,’” Sylla adds. “Staffs can’t be everywhere at all times. Things are going to go on. No one actually says no high risk sex takes place in our prison. Most correctional officials say ‘yes we know this goes on.’”

On the plus side, granting condom access can improve health for inmates and the communities they return to.

“Condom access for prisoners fits into the whole principle of harm reduction,” Sylla explains. “We know people are going to do something they shouldn’t do, and we want to reduce the likelihood they’re going to spread disease. It’s good for the community to reduce that likelihood. Most prisoners are going to get out and can bring back to society what they contracted in prison. If they need medical care down the line for Hepatitis-C or HIV, that is going to cost the community as well.”

Regardless of the pilot program’s results, CHJ is confident the initiative will raise public awareness about the issue of condom access for prisoners. For now, there appears to be more questions than answers in this difficult debate.

Related Resources:

More on condom access for prisoners

More on the Center for Health Justice


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