JDI IN THE NEWS - 2008

By Glenn Townes, Expert: Condoms prevent HIV spread in prison, Amsterdam News October 24, 2008

Many health care experts have long touted the distribution of condoms as perhaps the most effective measure to prevent the spread of the deadly virus that causes AIDS. However, for the millions of men and women housed in the nation’s jails and prisons, access to the potentially lifesaving pieces of rubber is not a viable option.

Advocates of what some deem as controversial and even radical measures to combat the transmission of HIV/AIDS in prison frequently promote the distribution of condoms in prison.

“The spread of HIV behind bars is exacerbated by the lack of condoms in U.S. prisons and jails,” says Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International—a California-based non-profit group, that, among other things, counsel current and former offenders who have contracted HIV as a result of being raped while incarcerated. In a recent interview with the Amsterdam News, Stannow says a condom provision behind bars is a legal obligation under federal and international laws to protect the health of all detainees. For example, inmates in coercive or protective pairing relationships contend that they would be able to negotiate the use of condoms were they available. Protective pairings, whereby a vulnerable inmate receives protection from a stronger inmate in exchange for sex, is common in prison.

On the federal level and at some state correctional facilities, sex in prison is prohibited. Officials argue that the random distribution of prophylactics to offenders would promote sex and jeopardize prison security.

“Sex in prison is not allowed,” said Felecia Ponce, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. “Condoms are not distributed at any of the Federal Bureau of Prison facilities across the country.”

When asked the reason why or if it is because of previously published reasons by other correctional officials, including the assertion that such a practice would lead to or promote rampant sexual behavior among inmates and threaten prison security, Ponce said she would have to review specifics of the rule with a health services coordinator at the bureau.

Stannow dismisses the argument and notes that a number of jails in Vermont and in some major cities across the nation, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia, distribute condoms to offenders. “None of these agencies have found reason to reverse or repeal its condom distribution policies,” she says.

“Internationally, condom distribution in prison is widely accepted and considered a public health measure.” For example, in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed legislation that would have provided condoms in state prisons. However, a oneyear pilot distribution program was launched in September 2008 at California State Prison, Solano.

“Public health agencies, including the National Commission on Correctional Health, have consistently endorsed condom distribution as a harm-reduction strategy,” Stannow concludes.

This Article was also featured in a web version at thebody.com, an online resource for HIV/AIDS patients, clinicians and activists.