By Jennifer Chaussee
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Condoms could eventually be distributed to California prison inmates under a bill that moved forward in the state Senate on Tuesday, setting the stage for potential pushback from Governor Jerry Brown, who vetoed a similar measure last fall.
The bill, which has already passed the state Assembly, would direct state officials to develop a five-year plan to hand out condoms in the state prison system. The initiative would not change current law that criminalizes sex acts between inmates regardless of consent.
"We are not only advocating for the improved health of prisoners," said Oakland Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who introduced the bill. "But we are also protecting communities across the state that could potentially be harmed by communicable diseases when former prisoners relocate to neighborhoods upon re-entry."
The measure passed the Senate Public Safety Committee with a 5-1 vote and will next be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Opponents of the proposal have predicted prisoners in the overcrowded system could use condoms to store contraband rather than for safe sex, while backers say it could help cut down on high rates of sexually transmitted diseases among inmates.
Bonta said the rate of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is as much as eight to 10 times higher in prisons than among the public. He said the state spends nearly $24,000 a year for each prisoner infected with HIV and enrolled in MediCal. He also said a previous condom-distribution pilot program cost the state $1.39 per prisoner.
"The long-term benefits to vulnerable communities, and to the budget, are well worth the modest state investment in providing condoms to prisoners," Bonta said.
When the bill passed the Assembly in January, AIDS activist Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation and a bill sponsor, said giving condoms to inmates could help reduce transmission rates and protect spouses and partners of prisoners once they are released.
"People have a right to have protection who are in prisons and jail and it's not being provided to them - regardless of whether it's legal to have sex in prisons or jails," Weinstein said.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Cynthia Osterman)