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Human Rights Watch Urges Gov. Schwarzenegger to Allow Condom Distribution in California Prisons

Letter to the Governor's Office in Support of Assembly Bill 1677

We are writing to urge you to sign and enact into law Assembly Bill 1677: condom distribution in prison, which was passed by the California legislature yesterday. This bill would help prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases by allowing nonprofit and public health agencies to distribute condoms in California prisons. California’s prisoners are several times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than other Californians, and unprotected sex in prison is a key risk for HIV transmission. Given that most of California’s inmates leave prison to return to their families, friends, and communities, ensuring access to condoms is essential to protect the lives and health of California’s inmates, and of the communities to which they return.
AB 1677 presents California with the opportunity to act as an example to other states in HIV/AIDS prevention and human rights. Los Angeles and San Francisco county jails have long acknowledged that providing condoms is critical to protecting the lives and health of prisoners and their sex partners, and have distributed condoms for years. Indeed, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey has expressed his strong support for AB 1677, emphasizing both the government’s legal obligation to protect prisoners from harm and the public health benefits to all Californians of preventing HIV transmission in prisoners. According to the California Department of Health Services, the vast majority of Californians also agree that distributing condoms in prison is important to prevent HIV.

International human rights instruments establish that prisoners are entitled to the same standard of HIV/AIDS information and services available in the outside world, including access to adequate measures to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. Prisons in Mississippi and Vermont, and jails in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles have taken measures to ensure the health and human rights of inmates by distributing condoms. Several countries throughout the world also distribute condoms to prisoners (including Canada, most countries in the European Union, and Australia). These jurisdictions have distributed condoms for years without violence or other incidents that might compromise security, demonstrating that denying condoms to prisoners cannot be justified on public safety grounds. See, e.g., World Health Organization, HIV in Prisons: A Reader with Particular Relevance to the Newly Independent States (2001); John P. May and Ernest L. Williams, “Acceptability of Condom Availability in a U.S. Jail,” AIDS Education and Prevention (2002), vol. 14, Supplement B, pp. 85-91.

Incarceration should not contribute to serious illness or premature death of any Californian, in or outside prison. Nor should it be an excuse to allow HIV/AIDS to spread despite the availability of inexpensive and effective HIV prevention measures. AB 1677 represents an important step toward meeting California’s obligation under U.S. constitutional and international human rights law to ensure safe and humane prison conditions and adequate medical services to protect the lives and health of people in its custody.
We urge you to sign AB 1677 and ensure its swift enactment into law.


Rebecca Schleifer, J.D., M.P.H.
Researcher, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program

Jamie Fellner, Esq.
Director, U.S. Program

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