Governor Brown vetoes law for free condoms in California prisons

Governor Jerry Brown has vetoed a bill that would have expanded access to condoms in California prisons, sowing concern among health advocates and the bill’s sponsor.

Assembly Bill 999, sponsored by Democrat Rob Bonta of Oakland, would have required the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a five-year plan to offer condoms in all California prisons. Bonta called the proposal in AB 999 “extremely modest” and said he was “surprised” by the governor’s veto last Saturday.

“The department currently allows family visitors to bring condoms for the purpose of the family overnight visitation program,” Governor Brown wrote in his veto message. “While expansion of the program may be warranted, the department should evaluate and implement this expansion carefully and within its existing authority.”

The focus of the vetoed bill was preventing transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to incarcerated people during unprotected sex.  Prisoners in state and federal correction centers are more than twice as likely to have a confirmed AIDS diagnosis than the general population, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

In 2010, black men were seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white men nationwide, and black women were three times more likely than white women to be imprisoned, according to the same CDC report.

“My goal and the concern of communities of color throughout our state is much broader than just family visitation,” Bonta said. “We are concerned with the unprotected sexual activity that has always occurred and will continue to occur between prisoners. They are contracting the disease in prison and then spreading it to partners upon release.”

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a Los Angeles-based medical and advocacy group for those with HIV/AIDS, swiftly criticized Brown’s veto. Michael Weinstein, the president of the group, called AB 999 “a fairly prudent health measure intended to protect inmates as well as their post-incarceration partners . . . from possible transmission of HIV and other STDs.”

Currently, California prisoners only have access to condoms when their partners bring them for overnight conjugal visits, said Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the department. “Outside of that, sexual activity is not allowed in prisons,” he said.

Callison added that he was unable to comment on Brown’s veto because the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is a branch of the governor’s administration. “It’s not that we don’t have thoughts on the issue. It’s that we’re not able to comment,” he said.

If the governor had signed AB 999, the department would have expanded access to condoms based on a pilot project that ran from 2008 to 2009 in Solano State Prison.

Despite Governor Brown’s veto, the department may still look at expanding access to condoms on its own. “Something will happen. Just exactly when and how has yet to be determined,” according to Callison. However, “an evaluation comes first,” he added.

The report from the pilot project, which was released in 2011, estimated that it would have cost $1.49 per inmate in the first year to make free condoms available. The average yearly cost of antiretroviral drugs for one person with HIV is $40,800.

AIDS-Related Deaths in US Prisons by Race, 2007

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