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Five Ways the California Bill to Provide Condoms in Prison Falls Short

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September 17, 2013

The California State Senate recently approved a bill to provide condoms to currently incarcerated adult prisoners. The controversial piece of legislation would require five adult prisons to have condoms available by 2015 and the other 33 by 2020. If passed, California would become the second state in the union to provide condoms in prison, next to Vermont. The legislation would provide an important resource to incarcerated people and help to protect those in incarceration from the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections

Nonetheless, the initiative to provide condoms to prisoners is merely a band-aid solution to a much bigger problem. Here are five additional things California needs to do in order to fully protect vulnerable prison populations.

1. Specify where and how condoms will be distributed
In order to ensure the effective distribution and use of condoms in prison, they must be safely and discreetly accessible. This means that inmates must not be required to ask for condoms from guards or officials and that condoms should be readily available in several unobtrusive locations throughout the prison.

2. Provide water-based lubricant to protect against condom breaking and torn tissue
In order for the provided condoms to be as protective as possible, prisons should also provide inmates with water-based lubricant. Condoms used without lubricant are more likely to tear, which raises the risk of transmitting STIs. Furthermore, rectal tearing contributes to high levels of STI transmission and is much more likely when lubricant is not used.

3. Provide dental dams in addition to condoms to female inmates
Female inmates’ needs are not addressed by current legislation but in order to fully protect every person in prison from the spread of STIs, California should make available not just condoms but dental dams as well, which will help to protect inmates with vaginas from the spread of STIs during oral sex.

4. Introduce comprehensive educational programs on the proper use of condoms and dental dams
No condom distribution or sexual health program is complete without an educational component. Rather than assuming that all inmates have received quality sexual education in their life, the prison system needs to ensure that educational programs teaching prisoners how to use barrier methods as protection against the spread of STIs are also provided.

5. Address the root problem of rampant sexual assault in prisons
While exact statistics are difficult to collect, sexual assault in prison, whether between inmates or when it includes prison staff and guards, is all too common. Besides its terribly violent nature, sexual assault in prison is a major transmitter of STIs. Prisons not only in California but all over the United States need to seriously tackle the epidemic of sexual assault in prison.

Access to the tools necessary to have safe sex is a basic human right, regardless of legal status. If California passes this legislation, we will take an important step towards realizing that right for all Californians. However, there is still more work to be done to ensure that those in prison have access to all the sexual health tools and education they may need.

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