Fear of HIV adds to harsh realities of prison

In last week’s Zimbabwean, we reported that the government could no longer afford to feed prisoners. This week, RUZVIDZO MANDIZHA discovers that losing one’s freedom can turn into losing one’s life.

Going to prison is one of the worst things that can happen in a person’s life. It takes away the most basic human right of freedom. Even if the sentence is short, the effects of the incarceration can last long after the cell doors open.

Most prisoners land in jail because of bad decisions they made. Part of the rehabilitation process is learning to accept responsibility for those decisions.

Sometimes that rehabilitation process is interrupted by other factors that weren’t part of the plan for punishment and rehabilitation. The culture of violence, the stress of being confined, and the isolation of being away from loved ones takes a toll.

And now, prisoners are in danger of contracting HIV/AIDS – adding to the already traumatic experience. The Zimbabwe Prisons Service estimates that around 27 per cent of all inmates are infected with HIV.

Investigations indicate that there is no system in place to track how many come to prison already infected, and how many contract the virus while behind bars, but the percentage of people infected with HIV in prisons is double that of the general population.

Lisa Dube, a counsellor who works with inmates through the HIV outreach and treatment programme, said cases of men having sex with men in prisons were more common than reported, and the secretive culture made the risk of HIV transmission higher.

Dube said the condoms counsellors generally provided to help people protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases couldn’t be offered in prisons because sexual activities weren’t supposed to be happening in the first place.

The warden at a prison we visited spoke as if there was no problem of high-risk behaviour, but inmates told a different story. Prison officials often can’t or won’t admit there is a problem because the activities are socially taboo.

Remand Prison is situated near Newlands, Men of various ages in white uniforms are kept behind barbed wire and locked gates.

Inmate Gabriel Nyama said most prisoners were illiterate and uneducated, with histories of crime. He is educated, he said, and had a good job before a night of drinking ended in tragedy with his friend dead. He spoke freely about the hierarchy in prison and how it contributed to the spread of HIV through men having sex with men.

In a bid to satisfy their sexual needs away from wives and girlfriends, older and stronger men preyed on younger, weaker inmates. Some activists and healthcare workers lobby around the world for the distribution of condoms in prisons, but Dube said that this actually encouraged unwanted behaviour.

Instead, she said, that conjugal visits with wives and girlfriends should be allowed under Zimbabwean law and that prisoners should be kept busy.

Harare Remand Prison officer-in-charge Chief Superintendent Chibaya said: “HIV affects all walks of life in Zimbabwe, including staff and prisoners.” But when it came to discussing the spread of HIV behind prison walls, he was reserved.

“They can do some funny things without the knowledge of authority, but it is rare,” he said, adding that he believed most cases of HIV in prisons were people who were already infected when they were locked up.

Post published in: Health
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  1. Donette Read Kruger

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