California lawmakers are considering legislation to make condoms available to state prisoners in an effort to combat high rates of STDs such as HIV among the inmate population. Past successes in Vermont and the District of Columbia suggest that could be the right move.
It is illegal to have any sort of sexual contact in almost all American jails, with limited exceptions under some circumstances in some states, such as conjugal visits for married prisoners. But prison officials and health care workers acknowledge that those laws do little to prevent intercourse — both forced and consensual — in jails. “There’s no point in wearing blinders — we know that they’re having sex,” said Traci Outlaw, the HIV testing coordinator for Unity Health Care at the D.C. Jail, in a 2012 interview with PBS. “We can’t answer how or where, but it happens and we know that.”
Since condoms are considered contraband in most prisons, inmates who engage in sexual activity must go unprotected. That’s led to a proliferation of HIV in the inmate population, which has a projected HIV infection rate that is more than double that of the overall population, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco estimate that California’s inmate HIV rate could be as high as ten times that of the broader populace.
Critics argue that providing prisoners with prophylactics encourages behavior that is technically illegal, and might also increase the incidence of rape or harassment of guards. But Vermont, which has been supplying condoms to prisoners since 1992, hasn’t experienced any such security problems. An experimental pilot program in California also went off without a hitch, and the CDC called for a federal prison condom distribution law in 2011.
Proponents like Outlaw consider the policy common sense. “[I]f we don’t put tools in place to ensure that this virus can at least be arrested, it’s not going to go away,” she said in her PBS interview.
Cities that have made sexual health resources like condoms more freely available to young people have experienced declines in sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy without seeing self-reported sexual activity increase — suggesting that the availability of contraception doesn’t actually increase the number of people having sex, but rather the number of people having safe sex.