Condom Machines for Inmates in S.F. Jails Could Serve as Model for State

Condoms have been available to prisoners in San Francisco County jails since the 1980s. Under a new law, condom machines like this one may soon be installed in state prisons. (George Lavender/KQED)

In the corner of a gym in a San Francisco jail, there's something you wouldn't usually find behind bars: a condom machine.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law that makes condoms available for free in all of California’s prisons. While sex between inmates is illegal, supporters of the “Prisoner Protections for Family and Community Health Act” say making condoms available in prison will help prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The law's author, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, points to the machines in San Francisco's jails as a model of how condom distribution could work on the state level.

San Francisco began providing condoms to inmates in the 1980s in response to the AIDS crisis. There are now more than a dozen condom machines in San Francisco's jails, according to Kate Monico Klein, director of HIV services for Jail Health, a division of the county's Public Health Department. The dispenser in Jail Number Four was mounted in a corner of the gym “so that people would have a minor amount of privacy," Monico Klein explains.

Sex in jail is illegal even if it is consensual. Section 286(e) of the California Penal Code outlaws “sodomy with any person of any age while confined in any state prison ... or in any local detention facility,” and California's Code of Regulations prohibits all sexual acts between inmates.

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“The law's the law, but should this behavior occur, there's a safe, safer way," says San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. "We want people to be protected.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in seven people living with HIV passes through correctional facilities each year.

"Condoms are good to have around, I think, because it's a life-saving device," says Robert Greve, an inmate who’s serving a short sentence in the jail's special unit for gay and transgender prisoners.  "A lot of people don't care about their health, I don't think. Personally, I do. I'd rather not have sex than not use a condom, but some people do."

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. (Mina Kim/KQED)

Having done time in several states, Greve says this is the first time he's been locked up in a facility where condoms are provided. With a laugh, he says he likes to make use of the machine, taking “10 of them every time.”

Another inmate in the jail, Rene Angel Ramirez, says he's HIV-positive and uses condoms to keep partners safe -- and to protect himself from diseases like gonorrhea, chlamydia or hepatitis C. He says he knows people who have contracted HIV while in custody. “We still have the need of sex,” he explains.

As Monico Klein recalls, when condoms were first introduced in San Francisco jails, some deputies were unhappy with the plan. Apart from the illegality of sex between inmates, there were concerns that condoms could be used for smuggling drugs, or filled with urine and thrown at staff, known as “gassing.”

She says deputies were also concerned that making condoms available would lead to an increase in both consensual sex and sexual assault. The Sheriff’s Department says that hasn't happened in the years since condoms have been available. But the condoms have been used in some unexpected ways.

"We found that among other things, prisoners take the condoms and they use them as hair ties. They use them as pillows," says Monico Klein. "One of the deputies told me that they blow them up and use them as balloons. While this initially bothered some people, she says, “we realized that this is another way of destigmatizing HIV.”

Even after more than two decades, San Francisco Chief Deputy Sheriff Matthew Freeman says not all deputies are comfortable with condoms being available.

"I could not report to you that there still is buy-in from the uniformed staff," Freeman says, and adds there are reasons sex is prohibited in jail. "We know from experiences running and managing jails that even consensual activity amongst inmates can lead to very real problems." 

California has five years to come up with its plan for distributing condoms in state prisons, a move that Mirkarimi says is “years overdue.” Other prisons and jails across the U.S. have been slow to follow San Francisco’s lead, something Mirkarimi attributes to the slow pace of reform in the criminal justice system, as well as homophobia.

Inmate Greve says that, based on his own experience in state lockups, the only problem he imagines with providing condoms in California state prisons will be supply, because “people will want as many of them as they can get.”