Condoms are illegal in most American penal systems, yet 40% to 60% of inmates report engaging in sexual activity, and HIV rates among the incarcerated are up to eight times that of the general population. Last September, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a federal bill to slip latex behind federal prison bars. (Condoms are currently permitted in jails in only a few cities, including Los Angeles, and in the state of Vermont.) Less than three weeks later, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a California bill—approved by the state legislature—that would have legalized condoms in state prisons. “We need to break the silence and get our heads out of the sand,” says Lee. “Sexual activity does occur in prisons, and we must allow condoms.”
One-third of African-American men pass through the penal system and, due to higher incarceration and HIV rates, are 3.5 times more likely to die from AIDS while in prison than their white counterparts. More than 90% of all inmates are eventually released, many unknowingly infected with HIV, meaning that rising HIV rates in prisons fuel the epidemic on the outside, where it is the leading cause of death in black women between the ages of 24 and 35.
Schwarzenegger’s office would not comment and instead referred POZ to the governor’s veto statement, which argues that the bill conflicts with the existing penal code, which bans sex in prisons. “We were definitely surprised,” says Sean Barry of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, which last October helped push to get condoms in Philadelphia prisons for the first time. “It may have been an example of him tending to the interests of social conservatives before an election instead of focusing on what would benefit the state.” Lee says, “I was appalled.”
In addition to permitting condoms in prison, Lee’s bill would also improve access to HIV education, testing, counseling and treatment for the incarcerated. Lee says that while it may be hard to get her bill passed under a conservative administration, “We will fight until it gets done.” Barry adds that even if the bill doesn’t pass, it will help turn talk of HIV in prison toward evidence-based prevention strategies that actually reduce HIV rates. The perfect inside job.