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Since When Are Condoms Illegal?

Summer 2011

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Condoms Save Lives

Men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers are among the most vulnerable to HIV. To combat this, prevention programs have focused on encouraging condom use to help prevent transmission. Prisoners need them, since the reality of prison life often includes sexual activity. Sex workers need easy access to condoms and other safer sex supplies, and the ability to carry and use them without fear of arrest or violence.

Yet there are laws in the U.S. that make it difficult for people to protect themselves, especially people who interact with the criminal justice system. The lack of condoms in prisons and laws that use condoms as evidence of prostitution are examples of these policies. These laws increase the likelihood of HIV transmission both in and out of prisons. Plus, they single out certain groups as "unworthy" of protection, and make everyone less safe. But activists are fighting back to secure their rights and to help prevent the transmission of HIV.

Condoms in Prisons and Jails

Condoms are currently illegal in most of the country's jails and prisons, even though there is an increasing need to protect the health and well-being of inmates. The lack of condoms is a big problem because prisoners are highly vulnerable to HIV, hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), and other infectious diseases. In 2008 alone, 1.5% of all U.S. prisoners had HIV, four times higher than the rate in the general population.

The high rate of sexual assault in prisons fuels calls for condoms to be made available. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 60,500 inmates experienced at least one incident of sexual assault by other inmates or staff in 2007. Studies show that sex workers, LGBT people, and inmates who are smaller framed are at greatest risk of sexual assault. In the context of prison rape, a lack of condoms places inmates at increased risk of HIV and other STIs.

Despite the occurrence of high-risk sexual activity, rape, and the risk of STIs, only five county jail systems (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.) and two state prison systems (Vermont and Mississippi) allow inmates access to condoms. This represents less than 1% of all U.S. prisons. Increasing condom availability in the prison system will go a long way toward protecting inmates.

The success of current programs that offer condoms to prisoners proves how helpful that can be. The Central Detention Facility of Washington, D.C., began providing condoms to prisoners in 1993. Each month condoms are provided through public health and AIDS service organizations. Condoms are available at health education classes, during voluntary HIV test counseling, or upon request to health care staff. Since condoms were made available, 55% of inmates and 64% of correctional officers support the measure. Only 13% of correctional officers are aware of any problems with condom availability, but details about these issues have not been provided. Likewise, no security issues have been reported relating to condom availability and there is no evidence that sexual activity has increased.

Although a majority supports making condoms available in prisons, 89% of inmates have not requested them. Also, 65% of those who have received condoms never used them. These results suggest that although condoms are available when a prisoner is able to request them, not many condoms are distributed throughout the prison. A possible explanation for this is that inmates are unwilling to request condoms because this would also be an admission that he or she is engaging in sexual activity. Policy makers should take this into consideration when creating new HIV prevention policies.

The U.S. can look to Canada as an example, since condoms have been available in Canadian prisons since 1992. Like the Washington Detention facility, condoms were initially available only through health care providers in the prisons. Many inmates reported that they would be more likely to access condoms if they were made available apart from health services. In response, condoms have been made available since 1994 in areas where inmates are not seen by staff or other inmates. Condoms are placed in bowls and other containers in sites such as washrooms, shower areas, and libraries. The introduction of condoms in Canadian prisons has met with much success, and no facility that has made condoms available has reversed the policy.

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This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. Visit ACRIA's website and GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
Ten Common Fears About HIV Transmission
Condom Basics
More News on Condoms and HIV

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