The Simple Solution for Preventing the Spread of HIV in Prisons

September 29th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Only two states currently distribute condoms to inmates even though it is well-documented that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are much more common in prisons and jails than in the outside world. HIV rates, for instance, are around five times greater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to CDC estimates, one in seven HIV-infected people go through correctional facilities each year, and without proper access to safe-sex tools, diseases like HIV can spread among prisoners and be ferried back into communities upon release.

Last year, California became the second state to mandate that all state prisoners must have access to condoms—following Vermont—in an effort to stymie what has the potential to become a public health crisis both inside and outside of prison walls.

Man in jail holding his cell

Opponents say that putting condoms in correctional facilities only increases sexual activity among prisoners, which is already prohibited across the board in every state. They also cite concerns that condoms could be used as weapons, filled with urine or feces, against guards, Al Jazeera reported. But supporters argue that condoms are simply a harm reduction protocol intended to make a natural human tendency much safer.

It's unlikely that states will prevent inmates from having sex.

"We still have the need of sex, and believe it or not the straight men, while they're in custody, they do have sexual activity with other males," San Francisco inmate Angel Ramirez told NPR in January. "It's sad, because I heard from other inmates how they... get infected with HIV while in custody."

California's law, which passed last year, gives the state five years to come up with a plan to distribute condoms to its 34 adult prisons. Vermont passed their law nearly three decades ago, and a handful of facilities across the country have voluntarily supplied their inmates with access to condoms for years. As ThinkProgress noted two years ago, those programs, including an experimental pilot program in California, have continued largely problem-free.

Harm-reduction strategies—which also extend to things like drug policy, drug education, and sex education reform—aim to introduce safety measures into certain inevitabilities like underage sex, drug experimentation, and sex between inmates. Those measures can be unpopular in communities, where conservative, zero-tolerance policies are preferred. But at least in correctional facilities, strict no-sex policies have largely failed to prevent sexual activity between inmates.

"The law is the law," San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi told NPR. "But should this behavior occur... there is a safer way. We want people to be protected—and we insist on it, that they be protected."

This could save a lot of money.

Advocates are also careful to point out that condoms actually could save states money in health care costs both for inmates and for those who might potentially contract an STI in lock up and bring it back out with them into their communities. According to California Department of Health Services estimates cited by the bill's chief sponsor, assembly member Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), the annual cost for an HIV patient is around $24,000, whereas providing condoms was around $1.39 per prisoner. The CDC notes that besides HIV/AIDS, prisoners are disproportionately at risk of catching gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis.

"The condoms don't increase the incidence of consensual sex or rape, but they do create an inexpensive barrier to a deadly disease," Bonta said after the bill passed the assembly in 2013. "By taking this most basic step," he said, "we are not only advocating for the improved health of prisoners, but we are also protecting communities across the state that could potentially be harmed by communicable diseases when former prisoners relocate to neighborhood upon reentry."

Check out ATTN:'s video about other countries with better prison systems than the U.S.:

Here are 4 Countries With Better Prison Systems Than the U.S.

Here are 4 Countries With Better Prison Systems Than the U.S.

Posted by ATTN: on Sunday, June 14, 2015