Don Thompson, Bills aimed at inmate rape, condoms clear committee, Associated Press, April 19, 2005. (Published in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Diego Union-Tribune)

SACRAMENTO - Inmates could be given condoms and corrections officials would be required to make it a priority to prevent prison rapes under two bills advanced Tuesday on an often taboo subject.

"It's unrealistic to think we have the ability to completely eliminate sex in prison," said Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood.

Added Assembly Public Safety Committee Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, "This is not an easy subject ... but it is a significant health issue."

Various studies put the incidence of homosexual activity at between 30 percent and 60 percent of male inmates, while HIV infection is at least five times that of the outside population, Koretz said.

Koretz wants to let nonprofit groups and health agencies distribute condoms and other bodily fluid barriers in California prisons, as is permitted in other nations.

Eleven organizations testified in favor of the measure, while Benjamin Lopez of The Traditional Values Coalition argued the bill would tacitly encourage sexual relations that, even if consensual, are illegal behind prison walls. Providing condoms to inmates to practice safe but illegal sex would be similar to giving inmates clean needles to use contraband drugs, he said.

California spends $18 million annually treating HIV/AIDS in prison, and it costs the state an average of about $23,000 a year for every HIV-positive Medi-Cal recipient, Koretz said. Since HIV can remain hidden for years, infected inmates can spread the disease both within prison and after their release.

"We are putting our population at risk ... if we do not take action," Leno said. His committee agreed on a 4-2 party-line vote, sending the measure to the Appropriations Committee.

The second bill, advanced by the committee on a 5-1 vote, would require the Department of Corrections to create an Office of the Sexual Abuse in Detention Elimination Ombudsperson to lead efforts to prevent prison rape. The legislation would help California comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, who is carrying the bill.

Lara Stemple, executive director of the Los Angeles-based national organization Stop Prison Rape, said one in every five male inmates is pressured or forced into sex, and one in 10 is forcibly raped in prison.

Juveniles are five times as likely to be assaulted if they are sent to adult prisons, as is happening more frequently with children tried as adults, she said. Women inmates are more commonly the victims of male prison employees, with as much as 27 percent of the female population at some prisons reporting sexual pressure, Stemple said.

"It's no secret that prison rape occurs in almost every detention facility. ... It's gone largely unreported," Goldberg said. "This is a human rights issue that is often clouded by judgment and bias," yet raped inmates may spread anger and disease upon their release into society, and female inmates additionally risk pregnancy.

On the Net:

Read AB1677 and AB550 at www.assembly.ca.gov

Stop Prisoner Rape: www.spr.org

The Traditional Values Coalition: www.traditionalvalues.org