Chicago may take after trend in California

By Metro Reporter

Although bills and petitions that would allow prisoners access to condoms have been  shot  down in Illinois, California passed legislation last year for condom distribution in prisons, which could provide insight into how similar laws in Illinois could lower the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in prisons.

Illinois Representative Monique D. Davis (D-Chicago) introduced a bill in 2009 that would allow prisoners to buy condoms, but it did not succeed. 

“I made this bill during a period when AIDS was very prominent, especially in the African-American community,” Davis said. 

After some inmates were released from prison, those who contracted AIDS or HIV would disclose it to their partners, and it was almost like an epidemic, Davis said. 

“It’s stated that it is illegal to have sex in prison, but we all know that it does occur,” Davis said. “We thought if there was protection available for those who were consenting to have sexual relations in prison that they be allowed a condom so they did not catch or spread STDs.”  

The bill did not succeed because the Illinois Department of Corrections said it would appear they were condoning the illegal act of having sex in prison if they offered contraception. Davis said that despite the passing of the marijuana bill in states like Colorado and Washington, smoking marijuana is also a federally illegal act. 

“I am reminded that federally, smoking [marijuana] is an illegal act, but we still passed that legislation,” Davis said. 

Ramon Gardenhire, vice president of policy for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, said the organization has been trying to run promote a bill in Springfield, Illinois, since 2012 that would allow condoms to be distributed in jails and other correctional settings. 

“The bill was never able to pass either at the House or the Senate,” Gardenhire said. “But we are still committed to the issue.”

“The Men & Women in Prison Ministries is other group that is working to advocate for this cause,” Gardenhire  said. 

Gardenhire said inmates are inevitably going to have sexual encounters in prison settings, which leads to positive STD test results after incarceration. Gardenhire said he thinks it is important that they take preventative measures against HIV and other STDs.

Ronda Goldfein, executive director of AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit public interest law firm, advocates this new policy. 

“Let’s be realistic there’s sex in jail,” Goldfein said. “Some is non-consensual and some is consensual. You want people to have condoms.”

For people to pretend that there is no sex in jail is shortsighted, she said.

Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, the director of state and local  affairs for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, is an advocate for policies that provide inmates with potentially life-saving contraception. 

“It’s something that we support in California, and I would be supportive of efforts in Illinois to explore similar programs,” Mulhern-Pearson said. “Our organization advocated for the bill. We submitted letters of support, provided testimony at public hearings and had meetings with legislators during the period when California was considering having condoms in jails.”

Davis said she will have a new bill drafted by Feb. 6 and plans on learning how AIDS is spreading throughout Illinois prisons and if Chicago prisons are having the same problem.   

“Many people on our committees  feel that the Department of Corrections should have the final say  but they forget that we are the legislators and we are the ones who hopefully make the final say in prison policy,” Davis said.