By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Condoms could eventually be distributed to California prison inmates under a bill passed in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly on Monday, setting the stage for potential pushback from Governor Jerry Brown, who vetoed a similar measure last fall.
The bill, which must still be passed by the state Senate, directs California to develop a five-year plan to hand out condoms in the state prison system, where existing law already criminalizes sex acts between inmates, regardless of consent.
Opponents of the plan 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.
"Sexually transmitted disease is a tragic reality of life in prison," said Oakland Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who introduced the bill.
Bonta said the rate of sexually transmitted diseases that can be prevented by condom use was considerably higher in prisons than in the general population. In particular, he said the rate of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is as much as 10 times higher in prisons than among the public.
AIDS activist Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS healthcare foundation and a bill sponsor, said giving condoms to inmates could help reduce transmission rates and would help 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.
He pointed to a pilot program in Solano State Prison that he said was successful in preventing the spread of disease.
The state's legislative analyst found that the cost of treating an HIV-infected inmate is about $41,000 per year, and said the program would pay for itself and save hundreds of thousands of dollars if it prevented 10 cases per year.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation has offered to provide the condoms as well as dispensers, Weinstein and Bonta said.
Brown, in an October veto message of last year's bill, said responsibility for condom distribution in prisons belonged to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, not the legislature.
"The department currently allows family visitors to bring condoms for the purpose of the family overnight visitation program," Brown wrote in his message. "While expansion of the program may be warranted, the Department should evaluate and implement this expansion carefully and within its existing authority."
California prisons have been in the spotlight nationwide over the past year over such issues as overcrowding and the practice of keeping some inmates in near-isolation for years on end.
To make the measure more palatable to the governor this time around, backers asked the state to develop a plan to distribute condoms, but did not require the plan to be implemented.
Brown has not indicated whether he will sign the revised measure.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)