Shedding Light on Prisoners' Rights

HIV/AIDS awareness group trying to make case for prisoners' right to condom access

Despite the chorus of kazoos playing taps and the giant banner that read "Sunset has blood on their hands," the somber funeral procession that interrupted Wednesday's meeting of the Sunset Commission was generally ignored. ACT UP, the HIV/AIDS awareness group that donned the black veils and played the kazoos, must be getting used to that by now.

Created in the Seventies by the Texas Legislature, the Sunset Commission has the power to let state agencies expire (when their 12-year expiration, or "sunset," date rolls around) unless they accept recommendations for improvement made by the commission. With the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's sunset date coming up in September, the commission has been working steadily on recommendations for how TDCJ can fix this state's broken rehabilitation system – including some good recommendations, such as actually trying to rehabilitate people for drug and alcohol problems instead of just tossing them in a cell. But ACT UP's funeral procession was not in response to what the commission is recommending, as much as to what they aren't.

As it stands, condoms are considered contraband in Texas prisons. In a May 31, 2006, letter to Kenneth Brimer, the commission's chair, ACT UP made its case for prisoners' right to condom accessibility, stating that "HIV/AIDS is the number one cause of death in Texas prisons, four times the amount killed by lethal injection. There are currently 2,500 inmates in the Texas state corrections systems known to be HIV positive, the third-largest HIV population among state prison systems in the nation." The group went on to request that the commission recommend TDCJ do the following:

"provide access to condoms in discreet locations throughout prison units and via health care providers in all facilities"

"allow community-based organizations to provide condoms to inmates in conjunction with HIV/STD prevention programming"

"develop a plan for the safe and anonymous disposal of condoms"

"provide a guarantee that no inmate will receive disciplinary action for possession of condoms"

"ensure that all inmates, upon their release, receive prevention materials including, but not limited to, condoms, community resource lists and HIV prevention and transmission information"

In addition to an appearance at the November hearing, members of ACT UP met privately with Sunset Commission staffers last spring, but they feel that the commission is ignoring their demands. "The only reason I can imagine that they don't want to talk about it is that they want to believe people don't have sex in prison, and guess what?" says ACT Up member J. Rogue. "One person getting infected while imprisoned is too many, and condoms can save lives. It's that simple."

According to Joey Longley, director of Sunset's staff, AIDS prevention in prison is not a lost cause, merely one of a hundred issues raised during the public comment process and included in the commission's report. He guesses that AIDS prevention could be discussed after the Sunset bill is filed and when it reaches the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, most likely at the end of February.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

HIV/AIDS awareness, Sunset Commission, ACT UP, HIV / AIDS, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Kenneth Brimer, Joey Longley

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