In prison but unprotected


RIBBON CUTTING IS NICE. Inspirational speeches from the bully pulpit can be useful too. But on a list of priorities for elected officials, protecting public health ranks near the top. That’s why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto last week of a bill that would have allowed condoms in prisons is more than just another cynical political maneuver: It’s a fundamentally irresponsible choice to make the world more dangerous for inmates and civilians alike.

The landmark legislation would have allowed healthcare and nonprofit agencies to hand out condoms to prison inmates. Research shows that male prisoners are three to five times more likely to be infected with HIV than the rest of the population. Prison officials’ denials to the contrary, many become infected while incarcerated.

A study released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented 88 men who became infected after entering Georgia state prisons, most of them through consensual sex. Because prisons only rarely test for HIV, infected ex-cons frequently go on to have unprotected sex and spread the disease to their unknowing wives or girlfriends.


The resulting damage has been most devastating to minority communities. Because two-thirds of prisoners are black or Latino men, and one out of three black men will serve time behind bars in their lifetime, minority HIV rates have skyrocketed, especially among the female partners of ex-cons. In 2003, African Americans and Latinas accounted for 83% of all new AIDS cases among women in the United States, according to federal statistics.

Conservative lawmakers have been trying to kill the condom bill all year -- for the head-in-the-sand reason that the program would effectively endorse the crime of having sex in prison. It’s a logic the governor rejected two years ago when he legalized the sale of hypodermic needles without a prescription in order to reduce transmission of HIV among heroin users. But two years ago, Schwarzenegger wasn’t seeking reelection while trying to lock up a restive Republican base.

In a recent Field poll, 70% of Californians favored distributing condoms in prison. Many foreign countries, and AIDS-impacted municipalities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, pass out prophylactics in their jails. Stopping the spread of HIV in one of the places where it grows the fastest is a far more pressing issue than reelecting a governor who should know better than to let public health be held hostage by moral hysterics.