Spotlight: Condoms in Correctional Settings
Wardens turned their eyes and minds west to Los Angeles last month, after hearing that the Los Angeles County Jail (LACJ) began distributing condoms to its self-declared gay inmates (see "Inside News" in this issue). The LACJ is only the seventh facility in the nation to distribute condoms. Four jail systems, in New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, and two prison systems, in Vermont and Mississippi, also make condoms available to their inmates. Most correctional facilities in the US have chosen not to distribute condoms due to three major concerns: 1) that condoms would be used as weapons; 2) that the condoms would be used to hide contraband; 3) and/or that the distribution of condoms would implicitly suggest that sex is permitted.
Condoms have been available in Canadian federal prisons for 10 years (condoms were first made available January 1, 1992).1 HEPP News recently interviewed Mr. Ralf Jürgens, director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network about the Canadian experience with condom distribution over the past decade.
Commonly voiced fears about making condoms available in prisons include the fear that the condoms can and will be used as weapons. One concern, mentioned by several correctional professionals in response to the news about the LACJ is that condoms could be filled with sand or dirt and used to hit other inmates or corrections staff. Other professionals have raised concerns about condoms being used as a strangulation device. When asked if these situations or other situations similar to these have arisen in Canada, Jürgens replied, "No. No events like these have been reported and furthermore, there have been no reported events of condoms being used as any type of weapon."
In fact, Jürgens explained, the "issues [surrounding condom distribution in corrections] have become non-issues." Jürgens cited a survey he worked on as part of the Expert Committee on AIDS and Prisons in Canada in 1995, several years after condoms were made available (at that point condoms were available in a wide variety of ways, not only through healthcare services). In this survey, the researchers found that 82% of correctional staff reported that making condoms available in prisons had not created any problems in the institution.2 The 18% of staff who did report problems cited issues not related to safety and security. There were comments, for example, that the inmates were "using too many of them [condoms]," Jürgens said, emphasizing that the problems reported were often minor and in no way endangered either the staff or the inmates.
Furthermore, although some staff had been concerned that condoms could be used to hide contraband or that making condoms available would be seen as encouraging sexual activity, most staff found that these fears did not materialize. According to Jürgens, the idea of condoms being used to hide contraband was discussed before condoms were available, but there has been no mention of it since. As Jürgens explained, condoms are not available from outside the prisons, only from within the institution. Therefore, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to use condoms as containers in which to smuggle contraband into the prison from outside. Furthermore, Jürgens said that objects that constitute contraband have been smuggled from location to location within the prisons long before condoms were made available. In other words, although condoms could serve as another way to hide and/or transport contraband once it is inside the walls, they have not materialized as "contraband containers."
The third issue surrounding the availability of condoms in corrections is that it implies that sexual activity is permitted, when in fact, it is illegal. Responding to this idea, Jürgens cited that sex while in prison is still an institutional offense in Canada, but that "fighting the spread of HIV is more important than upholding so-called morality when the activity is occurring [even in the absence of condoms]." He made the analogy that while drug use is illegal on the outside as well as on the inside, many countries around the world have needle exchange programs, responding to a public health problem. Jürgens described the availability of condoms in corrections as "a pragmatic public health response to something that happens -- it does not condone the activity [in itself]." Thus, in the Canadian experience, the issues most often discussed regarding condoms in corrections have turned out not be issues.
Although condoms have been available in Canadian federal prisons since 1992, many inmates chose not to access condoms until 1994. Jürgens and others questioned inmates about the distribution process. Initially, condoms were only distributed in prison healthcare services. Inmates responded that they would be much more likely to use the condoms if they did not have to go to a health services provider and ask for them, since doing so meant admitting to participating in an activity that is specifically prohibited in every Canadian correctional facility. Currently bowls or other containers filled with condoms have been placed in areas where inmates can pick them up without being seen by correctional staff or other inmates. Since 1994, condoms, dental dams, and lubricant have been made available in washrooms, shower areas, libraries, and in some cases are freely available "on the ranges." However, some facilities and a few provincial correctional systems have elected not to provide condoms at all or to provide them only through health services. Perhaps the most important observation Jürgens provided on the Canadian experience is that none of the facilities that has ever adopted a policy to make condoms available has reversed the policy.1
Jürgens also provided data from studies in Europe which have revealed that the percentage of prison systems providing condoms rose from 53% in 1989 to 81% in 1997.1 There are only four prison systems in Europe that are not making condoms available to inmates -- the rest are now doing so. "The United States is one of the few industrialized countries that do not make condoms available [to inmates]," Jürgens said. The situation in corrections in the United States does not exactly mirror that in Canada or in any other correctional system worldwide, as each nation's system is unique. Given the higher proportion of inmates incarcerated for drug-related crimes in the United States, consideration surrounding condom distribution may differ than those in Canada. Furthermore, considerations for condom distribution in prisons may differ from those for jails. Nonetheless, arguments used in the United States to bar the distribution of condoms in correctional facilities are "not sustainable," according to Jürgens, given the widespread adoption of condom distribution in other developed nations of the world and the relatively few problems as a result.
* Nothing to disclose.
Back to the HEPP News January 2002 contents page.