Bring Condoms to Prisons!
Activists Fight for Basic Safe-sex Options for Prisoners:
Prison activist Antoine Mahan said that when he was locked up twelve years ago, many inmates would use whatever they could get their hands on to protect themselves during sex.
Mahan, who has been HIV positive for seventeen years, said that with condoms prohibited in California prisons, he would regularly smuggle rubber gloves or plastic bags from laundry rooms or the nurse's office to use as makeshift barriers.
With HIV rates higher among the nation's prisoners than in the general population, activists like Mahan say that prison officials should make condoms and safe-sex education readily available. Only a handful of states and cities distribute condoms to their captive population.
Judy Greenspan, a board member of California Prison Focus, which works to protect prisoners' rights, said prohibiting condoms is a "head-in-the-sand approach" to preventing sex among prisoners. She added that corrections officials "would never sanction homosexual sex."
"It's part of the dehumanization of prisoners," she said. "It's part of the punishment to say you can't be intimate with anyone. ...
Michael Resnick, chief of staff of the Philadelphia prison system, said city facilities began to distribute condoms in 1998.
"At that time, the city began providing HIV counseling to inmates," he told TNS. "Because they were doing all that work, we realized there was a public-health interest in reducing HIV infection, and whether people wanted to accept it or not, inmates engage in sex."
To get condoms, Philadelphia inmates must arrange a visit to the health office and request condoms from a nurse. Resnick said the number of condoms inmates requested, 8,000, was low in comparison to the 35,000 new admits last year.
But Romeo Sanchez, an advocate for former prisoners and low-income people living with AIDS, said a system of formally requesting condoms likely discourages many inmates from seeking protection.
"You have to go to the medical department and request them," said Sanchez, who works with the New York City AIDS Housing Network and is a former prisoner himself. "The person is identified, and there's a stigma behind it."
Most prisons, however, do not even make condoms available on request. Corrections officials say condoms can be used to smuggle drugs.
Resnick acknowledged that condoms could be used for such purposes. "Inmates are pretty ingenious," he said. "You can hide stuff [in condoms], but we haven't had any problems like that."
Mel Stevens, a prison AIDS activist and former member of national AIDS activist group Act Up, said that argument avoids the real issue. "The whole contraband issue is just a smokescreen," he said. "What really is the bottom line is [corrections officials] don't want to know that men are having sex with men." ...
In New York State, where Stevens does his work, 7.6 percent of inmates are HIV-positive representing the highest rate in the nation; the state incarcerates a fifth of HIV-positive prisoners nationwide. The Correctional Association of New York, which inspects state prisons, reported in 2000 that doctors in the system were untrained in AIDS treatment and that medications were dispensed with oversimplified directions.
"Prison is not about care," Stevens said. "It's about punishment."
Dear Selfish American Taxpayer,
Do you really want your money spent on providing care to prisoners with AIDS? I promise it'll be much cheaper to give them condoms. Besides, some of them will leave prison at some point. I know they're not human beings or anything, but they could end up infecting you and yours, you know, the people that matter and aren't being punished.