Free Condoms for Prisoners?

Condoms a Security Concern

Some prisons argue, though, that passing out condoms could create a host of unexpected problems.

In short, they say that behind bars, a condom is more than just a condom.

"We recognize the public health benefit, but a lot of people who do not work in the prison system cannot completely appreciate what inmates do with foreign objects," said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the state of California in Sacramento. "They can make a lethal weapon out of dental floss."

In October, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a piece of legislation that would have allowed condoms to be distributed in the state's correctional facilities.

Sessa says the vetoed bill was not the first time the issue had come up.

"[Condoms] can also easily be used to hide drugs, or smuggle contraband around the prison," he said.

There is also the concern that condoms do nothing to prevent the incidence of nonconsensual sex among inmates.

"It's terrible that prisons cannot protect inmates from nonconsensual sex, but frequently they cannot, and it's even worse when a raped prisoner becomes HIV positive," said Julia Ericksen, professor and chair of the department of sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia. "So, even here, condoms make sense."

Many Alternatives Costly, Not Feasible

Proponents of condom distribution in prisons say the measure would cost only pennies per inmate.

Condom distribution is more preferable than more direct intervention to prevent sex among inmates, such as additional monitoring or isolation.

"More stringent monitoring, well you could do that," said Dr. Rebecca Finn, director of HIV services for the New York City Department of Corrections.

"But you'd need more people. It would be more expensive. And I'm not sure it would really do anything. If people are going to be sexually active, they're going to find out ways to do it whether they're being monitored or not," Finn said.

Finn adds that because many prisons are so large -- Riker's Island, for example, holds between 10,000 and 12,000 inmates -- isolation would not be a feasible alternative.

"Isolation is just not healthy," she said. "People end up getting mentally very unstable if you isolate them."

Sex education is another option currently used by many prisons.

"Our inmate- and employee-education programs for treatment and counseling of infected inmates is in line with state-of-the-art recommendations and consistent with or ahead of usual community practice," said Harrisburg's Moore. "We might not be able to prevent inmates from engaging in sex, but we feel that we need to continue to educate them."

But Finn says education can go only so far -- particularly when inmates don't have the resources available to ensure their sexual encounters are as safe as possible.

"Whether we think it's appropriate or not for inmates to have sex with each other, they do," Finn said. "If we refuse to accept the fact that when you put all these inmates together in a dormitory setting that they're going to be sexually active, then I think we are inviting new disease to occur."

Despite their crimes, some observers say, prisoners do not deserve extra punishment while incarcerated.

"No matter what, no prisoner deserves to get HIV as part of his punishment," Ericksen said.

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