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Jailhouse Block for AIDS

L.A. hands out condoms to prisoners, though inmate sex still illegal

MONDAY, Dec. 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In an experimental program, authorities at a Los Angeles jail are distributing condoms to gay male prisoners who ask for them.

While sex in jail is illegal, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department acknowledges that it occurs and wants to prevent prisoners from being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, Sheriff Lee Baca says in a statement.

"Communicable disease must be controlled, that's all. We're doing this because we just don't want people to die," Baca says.

An estimated 80,000 of all prisoners in the United States are HIV-positive. Studies have found that about 2 percent to 3 percent of California prisoners are infected, says Dr. Joseph Bick, chief medical officer of the California Medical Facility, at Vacaville, which houses 3,200 sick male prisoners. But he says it's hard to know for sure how many prisoners nationally have HIV because many prison systems, like California's, don't require testing.

The virus is more common among women than men in prison, a difference attributed to higher rates of drug use and prostitution among females. "The group that has had the greatest increase in number of cases over the past several years has been young, heterosexual women of color, while rates have stabilized among men who have sex with men," Bick says.

The condom distribution program began about three weeks ago in the Twin Towers jail, which is home to about 5,000 of Los Angeles County's 19,000 prisoners, says sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

County jails hold prisoners awaiting trial and those sentenced to short terms. The Los Angeles jail system is the largest in the United States, Whitmore says.

Experts who track AIDS in prisons nationally say, as of 1999, condoms were distributed only in county jails in Washington D.C., New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco and in state prisons in Vermont and Mississippi.

In Los Angeles, the county health department provides the condoms, and an advocacy group distributes them with information on how to use them, Whitmore says.

Jail employees aren't directly involved. "This doesn't cost us a dime," he says.

As of last week, 551 condoms had been distributed; prisoners are allowed to request only one per week. The segregated gay section of the Twin Towers jail is home to about 300 inmates.

Even though the condoms are given out, prisoners still will be punished if they are caught having sex with each other -- a felony under California law. "We believe this doesn't advocate sexual activity," Whitmore says. "This is being done for safety's sake."

The Los Angeles condom project is a "bold" step, says Dr. Frederick Altice, director of the HIV in Prisons program at Yale University.

"Almost everybody tacitly acknowledges that same-sex behavior goes on. Most is consensual, and some of it is forced," he says. "If there is going to be risk going on, and you have an option to decrease transmission, we should be doing whatever we can."

Altice acknowledges, however, that no one knows if condom distribution does indeed reduce the rate of AIDS in prisons and jails.

Sheriffs and wardens do need to take precautions to make sure that the inmates who request condoms aren't forced to stand out from others, Altice says. "They don't want to be identified. Sometimes people can just get them; sometimes they have to work [walk] through a [specific] area on the way to the cafeteria."

What To Do

Learn more about HIV in prison in this fact sheet from the AIDS Action Council.

Learn more about AIDS terms in this online glossary from the national HIV/AIDS Treatment Information Service.

Interviews with Steve Whitmore, spokesman, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department; Joseph Bick, M.D, chief medical officer, California Medical Facility, Vacaville; Frederick Altice, M.D., acting director, AIDS Program, and director, HIV in Prisons Program, associate professor of medicine, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
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