L.A. Jail to Distribute Condoms to Inmates

Condoms are not allowed in most U.S. prisons, where inmates are three times more likely to have AIDS. Alex Cohen of member station KQED reports on a pilot program for condom distribution at a Los Angeles jail.

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Condoms have been one of the most effective weapons in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Still, in most US prisons, where inmates are three times more likely to have AIDS, condoms are not allowed. Alex Cohen of member station KQED visited a pilot program in Los Angeles that would allow condom distribution in correctional facilities.

Ms. SUSAN VEXLER (Volunteer, Correct HELP): Good morning. If you want a condom, please line up right over here.

ALEX COHEN reporting:

It's just after 10 in the morning when Susan Vexler(ph) enters a dorm at Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. Vexler, a volunteer with a group called Correct HELP, waits as about a dozen men groggily line up. She then hands them something that few inmates in America's prisons have access to, condoms.

Unidentified Man: Thanks, Susan.

Ms. VEXLER: Sure, you're welcome.

COHEN: This program is limited. Only openly gay or bisexual inmates are provided with condoms and these inmates are only provided with one condom each in a shiny red wrapper. Kathy Oleth(ph) is Correct HELP's educational director. She says the condom distribution program is promoting safe sex in the county jail, but it would be even more beneficial in the state prisons.

Ms. KATHY OLETH (Correct HELP Educational Director): A lot of inmates, gay or straight, may be able to abstain from sex in county jail. They're here for a limited amount of time, you know. But a lot of guys, you know, when they get to prison, it's a different story.

COHEN: It's a story inmate Stephen Allen knows well. Allen contracted HIV after having sex with another inmate who claimed to be HIV negative at a prison in Chino, California.

Mr. STEPHEN ALLEN (Inmate): There's people in there that would basically do things and not tell you about themselves and that's what happened to me. I found out three years later that person that I encountered with had it for years.

COHEN: As of now, only two states, Vermont and Mississippi, and a handful of jails throughout the country offer condoms to inmates. But California Assemblyman Paul Koretz of West Hollywood hopes to change that. Earlier this year, Koretz introduced Assembly bill 1677, which would allow non-profit organizations and health-care agencies to distribute condoms in the state's prisons. Koretz says condom distribution in correctional facilities is a key tactic in the battle to stop HIV and AIDS. He says the disease doesn't just plague the inmates.

Mr. PAUL KORETZ (Assemblyman, West Hollywood): So they contract HIV. They go home to their wives and girlfriends. They pass on the disease without knowing it. Partners split up. They go and pass it on to other people. And before you know it, there's a very high rate of HIV all coming from that prison stay.

COHEN: Sex isn't legal in California's prisons, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. And Koretz says oftentimes it's not consensual.

Mr. KORETZ: Some of the sexually related activity that occurs in prison occur because people give sexual favors to get things that they should be provided with anyway. In many prisons, the prisoners aren't given enough soap. So they may engage in sexual favors to get extra soap from some of their fellow prisoners.

COHEN: Koretz also argues that his proposal could save the state money. Last year alone the California Department of Corrections spent close to $16 million on anti-retroviral drugs for inmates who were HIV positive. But the bill has its share of critics. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called the proposal a waste of time and lumped it together with bills regarding cosmetic surgery for dogs and parking regulations for ice cream trucks. The California Department of Corrections hasn't taken an official position on the legislation, but spokesperson Terry Thorton says she has many concerns about giving condoms to inmates.

Ms. TERRY THORTON (Spokesperson, California Department of Corrections): Condoms have long been used as a method for smuggling and transporting drugs, so that is something the prison system is greatly concerned about.

COHEN: Thorton says that condoms could be used as slingshots to hurl feces and urine at prison guards. And she adds, distributing condoms could encourage inmates to have sex.

Ms. THORTON: Yeah. I mean, you're sending a double message, aren't you? I mean, you're telling people this is against the law but, oh, in case you do it, here's a condom. I mean, it doesn't work with our teen-agers and I don't see how that could work with inmates.

Mr. GLENN BETTERIDGE (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network): We haven't really seen any of the negative consequences that were predicted by some.

COHEN: That's Glenn Betteridge at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Canada, Australia and much of the European Union allows condom distribution in correctional facilities. Betteridge says in the 13 years that condoms have been provided in Canadian prisons, there have been no incidences of them being used as weapons or to smuggle contraband. He says by refusing to allow condoms, the United States is denying prisoners a basic right.

Mr. BETTERIDGE: The United States and many other civilized jurisdictions have accepted that prisoners do not give up their right to health merely because they're incarcerated. And so that prisoner should have access to the measures to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV.

COHEN: Betteridge says he's hopeful that if California passes condom distribution legislation that other states will follow suit. Assemblyman Koretz's bill was recently approved by the state's Public Safety Committee and should head to the Legislature within the next few months. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

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