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Condoms Now Available to Prisoners in Three States

Legislation in California, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2014, allows prisoners in the state’s 34 adult correctional facilities access to condoms.

With the signing of Assembly Bill 999 – also known as the Prisoner Protections for Family and Community Health Act – California became the third state in the nation, in addition to Vermont and Mississippi, to provide condoms to prisoners.

The state legislature passed the bill, authored by California Assemblyman Rob Bonta, in spite of a statute prohibiting sex between prisoners and concerns that the provision of condoms will encourage rape.

Bonta said the law was “a no-brainer” and “will literally save lives,” adding that condoms are “a low-cost method universally acknowledged to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.”

In a February 2016 statement to Fox 26 KMPH, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesman Joe Orlando emphasized the anticipated benefits of the law to California communities.

“Ninety percent of these guys are going to be sent home,” said Orlando. “So when they get back to the communities and to their families, let’s make it as safe as we possibly can.”

San Francisco has been passing out condoms in its jails since 1989, while Los Angeles County’s jail system – which averages more than 18,000 detainees at any one time – has been distributing them for more than a decade, thus giving Brown enough empirical evidence to sign the bill into law. Two previous versions of the legislation were vetoed – first in 2006 by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and again in 2008 by Brown.

Both governors cited California Penal Code section 286(e), which outlaws “sodomy with any person of any age while confined in any state prison ... or in any detention facility,” as the reason for vetoing the legislation.

There were also concerns that prisoners would fill the condoms with urine or feces and use them as weapons against guards – known as “gassing.” Additionally, some prison officials were worried the prophylactics could be melted down into stabbing weapons or used to launch projectiles. But according to officials in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, they have not experienced such problems.

In October 2015, with four prisons participating in the condom distribution program at that time, Orlando told the San Francisco Weekly that no incidents of weaponized condoms had been reported.

The legislation passed largely because it mandated incremental implementation of the policy; the CDCR was tasked with developing a five-year plan to make condoms available in all state prisons.

In February 2016, KMPH reported that 14 of the state’s prisons were participating in the program, with the remainder expected to be dispensing condoms by the end of the year. The cost to taxpayers was approximately $128,000, or $1.17 per prisoner.

By contrast, CDRC spokesman Orlando noted the cost of treating sexually transmitted diseases was much higher – $85,000 for hepatitis C treatment for one prisoner, or $24,000 to $60,000 in annual medication costs for a prisoner infected with HIV.

Inside California’s prisons, the response was mixed. Some prisoners thought the availability of condoms was a practical response by state officials; others, however, disagreed with the policy based on social and religious views.

“It’s only logical to put things in place to keep people safe,” said Sha Wallace-Stepter, incarcerated at San Quentin. “But me personally, I’m completely against it, because I don’t encourage homosexuality in prison.”

In Vermont, which began allowing condom distribution in state prisons in 1987 – permitting prisoners to privately request condoms from a nurse – news of California adopting similar practices was welcomed.

“Good for them,” said Delores Burroughs-Biron, director of health services for the Vermont Department of Corrections. “If we really want to take care of people not just in the short term but the long term, then one of the things we have to do is to make sure their health is protected.”


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