This August, California Democratic Congressional Representative Barbara Lee introduced the Repeal HIV Discrimination Act, a bill that would end HIV criminalization nationwide. But during that month she also introduced the Justice Act, a bill that could get U.S. prisons to start handing out condoms and automatically re-enroll HIV-positive ex-cons in Medicaid once they get out.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the possibly lowest-costing measures to help drastically reduce the spread of HIV in prisons.
HIV-advocacy group Housing Works explains the immediate beneficiaries of this reform:
“25 percent of the HIV-positive population passes through U.S. correctional facilities each year, just one percent of prisons and jails can legally distribute condoms. For years, activists have said that withholding tools to prevent the spread of STDs violates the human rights of incarcerated people—a burden felt especially by blacks and Latinos, who make up the vast majority of imprisoned individuals.”
So Lee’s bill would not only help reduce the spread of HIV in prisons, it would also reduce the costs of caring for HIV-positive ex-cons once they’re back on the outside—if inmates don’t catch HIV then Medicaid won’t have to float the costs of lifetime treatment. That’s good news for fiscal conservatives and prison reformers as well.
But sadly, Lee’s bill cannot force prisons to actually hand out any condoms since prisons fall under state (and not federal) jurisdiction; her bill can only suggest that they do. Right now only two U.S. states hand out condoms—Vermont and Mississippi—and only New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia do it as well.
Currently, 81 percent of European prisons hand out condoms. The number of U.S. prisons doing the same: one percent. Lee’s bill would do much better if it provided an incentive for prisons to comply.
The American Public Health Association, the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization all endorse prison condom distribution programs as an effective means to prevent transmission. So why have state prison boards been so slow to adopt the practice?
Is it to further stigmatize the disease? To serve as a greater deterrent for would-be criminals? Because they don’t really care about the well-being of their inmates? Or because there’s just too much local money in making ex-inmates dependent on HIV-medication?