Safe Rape: Condoms Go to Jail

In Chicago, Criminal Justice / Prison Reform, HIV/SIDA, International Public Health, Misc., US Politics on March 20, 2007 at 11:03 am

Federalism is really something else. A couple weeks ago, South Carolina wanted their prisoners to donate their organs in exchange for time off, and now Illinois wants them to use jimmy hats. A recent story from the Chicago Tribune outlined the pros and cons of a proposed plan to distribute condoms throughout the Illinois state penitentiary system. Despite the harsh rules banning sexual activity – along with any kind of activity for that matter – in prisons, HIV is a growing threat to inmates and will become a larger issue once they are released back into the world. Though there are obvious differences between the two scenarios, distributing condoms in prison looks to hit the same roadblocks as condoms in High Schools.

The first issue is that prevention in prison starts far before a condom enters the equation. The very concept of “safe sex” is dependent upon the partners being consensual and the most readily available allusion to Prison Sex is, of course, rape – a kind of “sex” that won’t ever be safe. There is, it seems, room in the chapel for another couple:

In reality, much of the high-risk homosexual contact in prison involves men who don’t consider themselves gay outside prison, former prisoners and researchers said. About 1 percent of prisoners report having been raped.

According to an in-depth study the CDC published last year on HIV transmission in Georgia prisons, most sex among prisoners was either consensual or what the authors called “exchange sex.” Those inmates said they use sex as a bartering tool to get cigarettes, drugs, food or protection from other inmates.

One striking finding of the Georgia study was that a third of HIV-infected prisoners said they had sex with male prison staffers, and one-fifth had sex with female staffers.

Sex, though not without it’s pleasures behind bars, is used both as currency and weaponry. Just like anything else, it is a useful tool in the contraband economy and politics of prison life. And though we can draw all kinds of pithy remarks about sex and prison economics – Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” (eh?) – we can give protections to these consumers the same way we give them protections on the outside. Just because dude takes it for a carton of Newports doesn’t mean he should get Herpes as well. The introduction of condoms might also introduce a sort of competition and health codes for these business owners. Vendors who chose to use protection can be preferred over those who don’t, thereby eliminating a threat of contamination through the free choice of the market system. This analogy is a little out there, I admit, but the realities of sex in the cells in no less potent. :

The objections to condom distribution seem detached from real life to Keith DeBlasio, who said he contracted HIV after being raped by another inmate at a federal penitentiary in Michigan, where DeBlasio was serving time for embezzlement and fraud. DeBlasio said his attacker probably wouldn’t have agreed to use a condom, but making condoms available could prevent other prisoners from getting the disease.

“I was sentenced to 5 years, and I got a death sentence,” he said.

From a health standpoint, it’s not much different from inoculation against disease. If we are already using medical means to protect inmates from contagious illness, how are government-sponsored condoms a stretch?

But, of course, there are those pesky moral issues. As if gay inmate sex wasn’t enough to make the conservatives grumble in the first place, the idea of combining it with prophylactics is a seething beast-monster:

Some criticisms of the proposals to let prisoners use condoms recall the debate from the 1980s over promotion of condoms as a “safe sex” tool. Many religious groups argued then that condoms would encourage immoral or dangerous sexual behavior, though public health forces effectively won that debate.

Rev. Harold Bailey, former chairman of the Cook County Board of Corrections, said he believes the moral implications of condom use among homosexuals remain paramount.

“Anytime anyone puts two men together, which is against the law of God, then gives them permission to do it with a condom, that’s despicable,” said Bailey, who served as the county’s jail chief until 2004.

“Having that sexual involvement, even with a condom, is not righteous,” Bailey said. “If they’re going to [have sex], they’re going to do it on their own, and not with my permission. … I’m not going to hell for nobody.”

I’m sure the Rapture will spare thee for thou compassion, Reverend. Granted, no one forced you to go to prison, you’re there due to your own mistakes, so why should the state now ensure your homoerotic escapades are “safe”? Being that there’s no shortage of unsavory characters in the joint, the argument to treat them with more humanity than they’ve shown the rest of us doesn’t quite carry water. That being said, the question of condoms “encourag[ing] immoral or dangerous sexual behavior” is a little moot when you drop that soap or really need that Heroin. Chastity might have sway in the context of a horny 14 year-old Freshman, but once you’re in jail, the whole “morals” thing doesn’t really resonate beyond practicality. The fact of the matter is that it’s already happening without permission anyway, though I can see how handing over ribbed Trojans to the guys over in Gen-Pop denotes a kind of compliance.

Violence is also against the rules in jail and we all see how effective it is as a deterrent. They do, though, put offenders into solitary confinement, so why not isolate those with STDs or HIV in their own separate wing? This seems unlikely as our prisons are swelling past capacity by the hour. The only choice the penal establishment has with sex is the length of the consequences. There are many aspects of prison a man will live with for the rest of his life, though STDs and HIV are a couple that could easily spread to his family, girlfriends and other innocent people once he gets out. Which is more moral?

The very idea that the conservative perspective on the use of prophylactics is “moral” and anything else “immoral” is one of those unfortunate consequences of political word fighting, not unlike “Pro Life” or the “Death Tax”. I agree that morals themselves should remain a constant in society, yet moral values are intrinsically subservient to personal choices and as such, swing both ways. Living a just and chaste life and promoting healthy living are both moral goals, but it’s the value one places on them that determine their position on the issues. Just because someone advocates safe sex, it doesn’t mean they encourage sex (as if sex needs encouragement) Considering the appetites of our youth, especially in this age of hyper-sexual content-inundation, it’d be stupid to send ’em out in the rain without an umbrella. In any case, though, there needs to be a balanced incorporation of both sides to create effective policy.

In regards to schools, condoms should be made available, but all efforts should be made to preach the responsibility and consequences that come from coital relations, this goes beyond waiting for marriage and the Bible, by the way. Teenage hormones are a formidable enemy that usually gets their way, this is true. But show those star football players a couple slideshows or have them wait a week for the results of their STD/HIV tests and you might not have to work so hard for abstinence. At the very least, they’ll think twice before taking advantage of some young girl, and maybe the girl will have the sense to play the cock-tease a little longer. The same can be said for prison. You’ll never prevent rape, and there’s little chance that there’d be a condom used during such a horrendous act even if given the option. For the rest of the lonely, desperate souls trading anal intercourse for a week without a beating, it really can’t hurt to have the choice, even if it’s not taken. If it’s cost effective and done responsibly, condoms in prisons can and should be allowed to work, our prison population is far too great to ignore this problem. But the question remains, would convicts chose to use them? Would it make sex any better or worse for a guy doin 15-20? And just out of curiosity, am I alone in wondering what Illinois’ Senator – Mr. Obama – thinks about this?

  1. I am glad to see the thought given to the issue of condoms in prison and prison rape.

    While it seems that the writer distinguishes (as does most of society in all fairness) sex by coercion or fear a bit differently than the “horrendous act” of actually being raped after one has been brutally beaten, I would still say that there are pretty strong arguments for even those most violent attackers to use protection. First, and even though I don’t want to give anyone ideas for how they can get away with a crime, the perpetrator who uses a condom has less of a chance of DNA being recovered for those very few cases where a victim reports. This doesn’t sound so good for the justice system, but for the victim who avoids becoming HIV positive, I’m sure it is a plus. Also, perpetrators who do not know they are already HIV positive may very well use protection to avoid disease themselves. Ironically, that would also protect the victim. Hmmm – protecting the victim – an interesting concept indeed.

    Thanks again for posting this discussion.



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