Condoms In Prison Despite Schwarzenegger’s Veto

Gay SexSex is taking place behind bars.
According to Isela Gonzales, an HIV counseling, testing and linkages coordinator with San Francisco County’s Department of Public Health, transgendered inmates and gay men admitted to her they’d been sexually solicited.
Gonzales said these inmates told her, “‘I’m glad you’re distributing condoms.'”
But passing out condoms, a seemingly simple act, is at the heart of a hot-button, controversial issue argued by law enforcement and public health officials.
For now, it’s against the law in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently vetoed legislation that would have required the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to allow non-profits and public health agencies to distribute condoms and dental dams.
Schwarzenegger’s veto follows a November report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Minority AIDS Council that recommends condom distribution to inmates to stem the growing epidemic of AIDS in the African-American community.
Blacks are disproportionately represented in state and federal prisons: According to 2005 statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, 40 percent of inmates with a sentence longer than one year were black.
Black men are being hit the hardest. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of people estimated to be living with HIV at the end of 2003, the last year data were available, were black and 74 percent were male.
“We know that our young men are being infected in prison,” said Damon Dozier, director of government relations and public policy at the AIDS Council.
San Francisco County blazes trail
San Francisco County, one of the seven jurisdictions nationally that passes out condoms to inmates, tiptoes around the law by distributing them as part of a safe-sex educational tool, said Kate Monico Klein, the director of the county’s Forensic AIDS Project.
Though the jails are not necessarily a hotbed of HIV transmission, Klein said, prevention methods like handing out condoms were critical.
About 2 to 5 percent of the 2,100 inmates in the five county jails are HIV-infected, she said. About 0.4 percent of the general U.S. population is infected.
Health officials began passing out condoms to inmates in 1986.
“We had people in custody who were very high risk,” said Eileen Hurst, chief of staff for Sheriff Michael Hennessey.
Still, after more than 20 years, the effectiveness of passing out condoms is difficult to gauge.
“People come in and out of jail,” Hurst said. “I would not know when they contracted AIDS or how or what.”
CDC study of Georgia prisons
However, a long-term study by the Georgia Department of Corrections and the CDC attempted to get a clearer picture of HIV behind bars. The study found that arriving inmates were four times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population.
Like the jails in San Francisco County, the study determined that HIV transmission in prison was not widespread, but infection and risky behavior, such as homosexual sex, did occur.
The CDC and the American Foundation for AIDS Research support handing out condoms as part of a comprehensive plan for HIV prevention, education and care, said Monica Ruiz, the foundation’s acting director for public policy.
“If (condom distribution) can make a dent on the inside,” she said, “it can make a bigger dent once they get on the outside.”
When released, inmates can then make a habit of practicing safe sex.
Gay SexCalifornia’s prisons and jails
Of course, inmates who have sex are violating state law.
“Well, you’re breaking the law, so why are we giving you the tool to break the law?” asked Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
Condoms are also not permitted in the state’s 18 federal prisons.
“It’s obviously not condoned and authorized,” said Sandra Hijar, spokeswoman for the Western Regional Office of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Many county jails, including those in Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Alameda counties, also ban condoms.
“We don’t want to encourage sex between inmates,” said Capt. Casey Nice of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.
HIV/AIDS rates are based on testing done when inmates request it or when there is a potential health risk. Only two states in the country test inmates for HIV at entry and release.
In Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the HIV rates in the jails are low: about 0.2 percent at the Santa Rita Jail, Alameda County’s largest jail, and a little less than 1 percent in Contra Costa County’s three facilities, according to public health officials.
Seventy-six inmates were HIV-positive last year in San Joaquin County’s facilities, but that number includes the jail, the Juvenile Detention Center and the Deuel Vocational Institution, said Mike Hill, the county’s director of disease control and prevention.
At Deuel, an all-male, 3,700-inmate, medium-security facility in Tracy, about 0.3 percent of inmates were known to be HIV-positive, said Lt. Ray Munoz, a public information officer.
Prisoners’ opinions on the issue
Three out of four inmates interviewed said condoms should not be passed out, largely because sex was not occurring.
“You would be hard pressed to be a practicing homosexual. You’d be ostracized for that,” said Franklin, 45, a black man who would not give his last name.
Franklin said he was initially afraid of contracting HIV while in prison, but he soon learned that most prisoners at Deuel were focused on one agenda — getting home as quickly as possible.
However, Justice Campbell, 25, an African-American transgendered person who identifies as a woman, said, “There’s sex going on in all prisons.”
Campbell said the other three inmates may not have been honest about that because prison officials were present during interviews.
from The Oakland Tribune / Cheryl Winkelman

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