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U.S. Could (Finally) Legalize Condoms in Prisons and Jails

Posted by , September 08, 2011

U.S. Could (Finally) Legalize Condoms in Prisons and Jails

Incarcerated individuals may finally get access to a lifesaver: condoms.

A new bill would reverse the draconian policy of forbidding the distribution of condoms in federal correctional facilities, putting the U.S. in line with most European countries.

The legislation, called the Justice Act, was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in August, and could help address a seemingly intractable problem: the spread of HIV during and after incarceration. “We can no longer afford to ignore the reality that sexually transmitted infections can be spread within our correctional system,” said Lee.

While an astounding 25 percent of the HIV-positive population passes through U.S. correctional facilities each year, just one percent of prisons and jails can legally distribute condoms.

For years, activists have said that withholding tools to prevent the spread of STDs violates the human rights of incarcerated people—a burden felt especially by blacks and Latinos, who make up the vast majority of imprisoned individuals.

“It’s certainly an outdated policy,” said Robert Gayden, who works at Housing Works’ re-entry program, helping hundreds of incarcerated individuals, many of whom are HIV-positive, re-enter society. “The government is pretty much denying the right to safety.”

Unfortunately, what the bill cannot do is legalize condom distribution in state prisons and jails, since the federal government does not have jurisdiction over state facilities. Instead the bill offers a suggestion to state governments. “It is the sense of Congress that States should allow for the legal distribution of sexual barrier devices in State correctional facilities,” reads the bill’s text.

The American Public Health Association, the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization have all endorsed the effectiveness of condom distribution programs in correctional facilities. And Europeans have long permitted condom distribution in prisons and jails: The number of European prison systems allowing distribution rose from 53 percent to 81 percent between 1989 and 1997, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Infectious Disease and the University of California, San Francisco.

Just two states—Vermont and (surprisingly) Mississippi—allow for the distribution of condoms in state correctional facilities. The cities of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia also permit distribution.

The Justice Act also calls for the automatic re-enrollment in Medicaid for HIV-positive people once they leave incarceration.

Lee is a long-time leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS. She is also the author of the Repeal HIV Discrimination Act, legislation that would put an end to HIV criminalization laws that impose cruel and unfair penalties on people with HIV. She plans to introduce that bill this month.

Follow the Update blog on Twitter @housingworks.

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