Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Bill calls for condoms in prisons


Assemblyman Rob Bonta
(Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)
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A proposal to distribute condoms in California prisons is making its way through the state Legislature.

Assembly Bill 966, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee 6-1 Tuesday, January 14.

The legislation would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a five-year plan to distribute condoms in all state prisons. The corrections department would have the authority to determine the order of prisons it includes.

The bill is aimed at decreasing HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted infections.

In a news release, Bonta said STIs, including HIV/AIDS, "is a tragic reality of life in prison."

"AB 966 is a simple and sound preventative public health policy that is evidence-based, cost effective, informed by a highly successful pilot project, and will save lives," he said.

The legislation is similar to Bonta's AB 999. The Legislature passed that bill last year, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

In his veto message Brown said CDCR "currently allows family visitors to bring condoms for the purpose of the family overnight visitation program. While expansion of the program may be warranted, the department should evaluate and implement this expansion carefully and within its existing authority."

In response to emailed questions, Bonta said that this year, the legislation is "extremely flexible." It allows CDCR "to set its own timelines and develop a plan that works best for them."

He said that past versions of the bill mandated CDCR "to distribute condoms in all state prisons with little to no exceptions under a specified timeline. AB 966 simply requires the department to develop a plan for condom distribution" in state prisons, while "relying on guidance from the successful pilot project that was implemented at California State Prison, Solano" for a year beginning in November 2008.

The Solano program cost about $1.39 per prisoner to implement, and the report that followed concluded that the "cost paid for itself if the program averted just 2.7 to 5.5 infections per year," Bonta noted in his news release. "According to the California Department of Health Services, the average cost per patient with HIV in the Medi-Cal system is $23,964 per year," he said. 

Bonta said in his email that there isn't currently any opposition to AB 966, and "I'm very encouraged by the fact that we have bipartisan support this year."

He said that while he couldn't predict Brown's intention's regarding the legislation, "I am confident that he understands the broad health implications it will have on our state."

He said he'd continue working with Brown, CDCR, and nonprofit groups to ensure that implementation is safe and cost-effective.

Jim Evans, a spokesman for the governor, declined to answer questions about the veto message, and in an email, he said, "Generally, we don't comment on pending legislation."

In response to emailed questions, Terry Thornton, a CDCR spokeswoman, said her agency doesn't have a position on AB 966.

However, Thornton said, "Condoms have long been used as a method for smuggling and transporting drugs," which is "a security risk."

She added, "By ingesting a condom containing drugs, the drugs would not be detectable during a routine body search. There is also a serious health risk to a person who ingests a condom containing drugs, especially if the condom bursts."

Thornton noted that having sex in prison is still illegal in California.

In a phone interview, gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and supports AB 966, said, "What state law is saying and [Brown's] veto message supports is total denial of what is really happening on the ground in the various prisons."

Ammiano attributes opposition to condom distribution to "institutionalized homophobia" and said, "People go into these denial vortexes." As a result, more people are infected with HIV, he said.

He said San Francisco has been making condoms available to inmates "forever," and "It's time to standardize that."

"The issue is" that sex in prison "happens, and it affects the health and actually the mortality of people," he said.

Ammiano said, "the problem" in passing AB 966 "is the governor. The lobbying efforts have to be directed toward him."

Susan Fahey, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, which oversees the jail, said, "There have been no known incidents" of condoms being used to bring in contraband.

AB 966, which is sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has been re-referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee and is expected to eventually reach the Assembly floor.


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