On March 15, a state House committee voted 6-5 against allowing Illinois inmates access to condoms to help stem HIV infection rates in the state's prison system.
HB 686 would have allowed the Illinois Department of Corrections ( IDOC ) to distribute condoms—an item currently on the contraband list—to prisoners.
'We're not going to stop,' said AIDS Foundation of Chicago's ( AFC ) Rev. Doris Green, director of community affairs. 'We're going to continue with this battle because we know it is important. … This is not the first time they've rejected a bill we've put before them.'
According to an IDOC memo, there were 524 known HIV-positive inmates in November 2006. Based on national studies and statistics, AFC estimates the rates could be double that.
HIV rates are three times higher among those who are incarcerated, according to AFC. Some studies have estimated the rate of infection even higher in the U.S.'s prison system. Risks include consensual sex behind bars, sexual assault and injection drug use.
AFC'S director of state affairs, John Peller, says this issue needs to be tackled legislatively. 'We are looking into bringing in officials from the other states and local jurisdictions that currently allow condoms in prisons, and setting up meetings with legislators and with IDOC officials to say, 'Hey, they are making it work in these other communities,' Peller said.
Opponents of distributing condoms to inmates are concerned about safety issues. However, no prison that has distributed condoms to prisoners has reversed its policy. Peller cited prison condom distribution programs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities. Two states—Vermont and Mississippi—distribute condoms in all their prisons. In the case of Vermont, female prisoners can gain access to dental dams. Still, roughly 99 percent of prisons in the U.S. do not offer this form of protection to inmates and keep condoms on their list of banned contraband.
Peller said that prisons that currently have a condom program have similar facilities to those in Illinois, and have seen much success.
'There's never been anything serious enough to eliminate access to condoms [ at these facilities ] ,' he continued.
Prisoners do engage in consensual sex behind bars, although it is prohibited by IDOC. Various studies have found as much as two-thirds of inmates engage in consensual sex while incarcerated.
'It's against the law, but it's happening,' Green said. 'People don't go to prison and lose their sex drive. It just doesn't happen. We need to be realistic and think about prevention. We are talking about life saving prevention. We are not talking about letting inmates have sex just to have sex. We are talking about inmates having sex having protection.'
Through Green's work in a prison ministry group, she has heard stories of inmates using paper bags in an attempt to protect themselves. 'These are people trying to protect themselves. If they are criminals, they are criminals—but they are criminals trying to protect themselves. They want to protect themselves to protect the community.'
She said that although she sees other people's concerns and positions, she also sees the real impact this has on the larger community. 'We need to address this to prevent this happening on the other side when they come out.'
Of particular concern for activists like Green is a perceived correlation between HIV in prisons and the disproportionate rate of infection among African Americans, especially women ( who lead in new infections ) , in the general population. Two–thirds of inmates are African-American, and when they return to the population after becoming infected in prison, they pose a health risk to the larger community.
'It's part of the pie,' Green said. 'It's not the only thing, but it's part of the pie. We need to address that part of the pie. We do have condoms in the community. We do have health care and a lot of other provisions in the community. But we need to address this in the prisons.'
Another issue is that many prisoners do not reveal their HIV status in prison for fear of retaliation.
'For somebody to come in knowing they are positive, they might not want anyone else to know, even if that means no access to meds or medical treatment,' Peller said. 'They might not want to tell anybody … because they are afraid of violence or discrimination. Folks in prison have pretty good reason, we think, for keeping that to themselves.'
IDOC has seen a 475-percent increase in voluntary HIV testing from 2004 to 2006. Juvenile and adult IDOC facilities provide inmates with voluntary HIV counseling and testing. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the African-American HIV/AIDS Response Act—which makes Illinois prisons offer the test to inmates when they first arrive, during their stay and before they are released—in 2005.