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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

 


Prisons Break the Taboo Surrounding AIDS

James Hall


MBABANE, Jan 15 (IPS) - 2004 is shaping up as the year of prison
reform in Swaziland, and AIDS is the catalyst.

"It would be wrong to suggest that prisons are inhumane in Swaziland,
but there is much room for improvement to make them safe from HIV
infection, inmate abuse and other ills that are more or less endemic
to African prisons," said an officer with the Correctional Services,
which administers the kingdom's prison system. This person spoke on
condition of anonymity.

However, the head of Correctional Services - Commissioner Mguni
Simelane - talked openly with IPS about the change in attitudes which
is taking place within his department.

"We have come a long way in acknowledging the impact of AIDS within
prisons," he said. Legal observers in Swaziland say this has resulted
in an end to the denialism which previously characterised the debate
about HIV in jails.

Two years ago, a Mozambican national was held for three months at
Zakhele Remand Centre in the central town of Manzini, where awaiting
trial prisoners count the days before their court appearances. So
appalled was the 24 year-old inmate by the prison conditions, that he
told his story to the press after being released.

The man claimed that young boys were put in the same cells as older
prisoners, and often forced to have sex. Immediately, the
Correctional Services paraded out a dozen inmates to refute these
claims.

"There is no sodomy in Swaziland's prisons," insisted several inmates
at a press conference.

The denials were widely ridiculed, and the Mozambican national stuck
to his story which was later published in a book about abuses,
compiled by a humanitarian organisation. The book also contained
testimony from a prison guard who tried to protect young prisoners as
best he could from abusive situations.

That particular Correctional Services warder testified anonymously,
but by the time his account was published officials had acknowledged
that rape and same-sex relationships in prison were prompting the
spread of HIV.

The International Red Cross was one of the organisations instrumental
in forcing this change.

"Prison officials told us privately what they would not tell us
publicly, because they said they faced a dilemma," says Iris Dlamini,
a Red Cross nurse.

She adds, "They could not allow AIDS mitigation groups to distribute
condoms in prisons, even though they knew there was men-on-men sex,
and HIV was on the rise. `If we allow condoms, we will be encouraging
immoral behaviour,' they told us."

But, nightmarish AIDS statistics are alarming all Swazis.

Late last year, the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS
(UNAIDS) published a report that for the first time listed Swaziland
alongside Botswana as having the world's highest incidence of HIV
amongst adults. About 40 percent of the adult population is said to
be infected.

 


The number of prison deaths from AIDS-related illnesses - and the
toll which the disease was taking on prison warders - also prompted
action on the part of Correctional Services officials.

"We have allowed the Red Cross to have access to all the prisoners,
at the Zakhele Remand Centre, at the Matsapha Maximum Security Prison
(outside Manzini), and other facilities. They lecture men and women
prisoners about AIDS, and they promote safe sexual practices,"
Commissioner Simelane said.

Health care within the prisons remains a challenge, with facilities
overwhelmed by AIDS patients.

Dlamini echoes the voices of other aid workers when she says that an
effort to curb the spread of HIV in prisons will pay dividends for
society as whole in the future.

"Prisoners are in the high risk category, which means that upon
release they pose a danger to larger society if behaviour while
incarcerated led to AIDS," she notes.

"Obviously, for society to protect itself we must stop AIDS at its
source. In Swaziland, that means cutting back on multiple partners,
curbing pre-marital sex, and going after commercial sex workers,
itinerate workers and prisoners with AIDS awareness messages."