SACRAMENTO — California prisoners have unprotected sexual contact, forced or consensual, even if both are illegal, and this reality often leads to the spread of HIV and other diseases in prisons and in communities where felons are paroled.
Setting up a difficult conversation, one state lawmaker says it's time to give inmates a way to practice safe sex behind bars to reduce an infection rate that experts say is much higher than that of the general population.
The proposal from Oakland Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta comes despite a law prohibiting any sex between inmates, which creates a conflict that concerns both supporters and opponents of the legislation.
"It's a felony for prisoners to have sex while they're in prison, so I don't think it's good government for the state to encourage inmates to break the law," said Republican Assemblyman Dan Logue of Marysville.
Bonta's proposal would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to make condoms available in five prisons by 2015 and expand the program to each of the state's 33 adult prisons no later than 2020.
The bill, AB 999, passed the Assembly and is awaiting consideration in the state Senate. If it becomes law, California would be the second state behind Vermont, which has a fraction of the inmate population, to provide condoms to all prisoners. Canada, most of the European Union, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa already take that step, according to legislative researchers.
Currently, condoms are contraband in California prisons, though the state has tried a distribution program before but on a temporary and limited basis.
Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a 2007 bill that would have allowed nonprofit and health organizations to provide condoms to state prisoners. But in his veto message, the Republican governor instructed the corrections department to test a condom distribution program in one prison.
About 800 inmates in Solano State Prison had access to free condoms in vending machines for a year starting in November 2008. Public health officials' report on the pilot program, published in September 2011, found few problems and recommended the program be expanded.
On a lower-level, condoms have been available to jail inmates in San Francisco since 1989 and in Los Angeles County since 2001.