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California considers condoms for inmates

SACRAMENTO — California prisoners have unprotected sexual contact, forced or consensual, even if both are illegal, and this reality often leads to the spread of HIV and other diseases in prisons and in communities where felons are paroled.

Setting up a difficult conversation, one state lawmaker says it is time to give inmates a way to practice safe sex to reduce an infection rate that experts say is much higher than that of the general population.

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The proposal from Oakland Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta comes despite a law prohibiting any sex between inmates, which creates a conflict that concerns both supporters and opponents of the legislation.

‘‘It’s a felony for prisoners to have sex while they’re in prison, so I don’t think it’s good government for the state to encourage inmates to break the law,’’ said Republican Assemblyman Dan Logue of Marysville.

Bonta’s poposal would require the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation to make condoms available in five prisons by 2015 and to expand the program to all state prisons no later than 2020.

The bill passed the Assembly and is awaiting consideration in the state Senate. If it becomes law, California would become the second state to provide condoms to all prisoners. The other is Vermont, which has an inmate population of 2,200.

Currently, condoms are contraband in California prisons, though the state has tried a distribution program on the past on a temporary and limited basis.

Former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a 2007 bill that would have allowed nonprofit and health organizations to provide condoms to state prisoners. But in his veto message, the Republican governor instructed the correction department to test a condom distribution program in one prison.

The Vermont Department of Correction has been making condoms available throughout its prison system since 1992. The state’s inmates can request one condom at a time from a nurse.

The program has created no security issues, she said, while giving nurses a chance to counsel inmates and advise them that they should seek help if they are being coerced into having sex.

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