In-depth: HIV in prisons

SWAZILAND: Condoms refused in prison, despite high-risk behaviour

Photo: IRIN
Administration building of Swaziland's main prison in Matsapha
JOHANNESBURG, 11 June 2003 (IRIN In-Depth) - Swaziland's Correctional Services last month finally admitted that sexual activity occurred among prison inmates.

But despite the risk of HIV transmission, the authorities are refusing to provide condoms, in the belief that it would encourage homosexual behaviour.

"This is not consensual sex, but rape. It is considered aggravated assault, and perpetrators will be punished," Noma Dlamini, public relations officer for the Correctional Services, told a press conference in May.

"These men-on-men rapes are not homosexual acts. They are done by men who are away from their wives, and who are pretending that other men are female. That is why the perpetrators prefer young men and boys," a prison warder told PlusNews.

Central Matsapha Maximum Security Prison for Men is 30 km east of the capital, Mbabane. A former inmate, who asked to be known only as Michael, told PlusNews that sexual exploitation was rife.

"There is cellblock G-7 that is supposed to keep minors separately from adults, but they are free to join the men during the day. We meet in the kitchen, in the dining hall, and we see each other outside because we spend most of the day outside. It isn't difficult for men who want sex to meet the kids. They carry blankets, and they take the kids to other cellblocks," he explained.

In Swaziland's penal system, he said, sex is a matter of negotiation between inmates, but there is also sexual assault. "A grown man inmate can negotiate to have it voluntarily done, or he can just go and rape somebody if he wants to."

Swaziland's prisons are overcrowded. Correctional Services, the authority responsible for all the country's prisons, will not reveal the total number of inmates, but food shortages have reportedly reduced meals to one a day in some congested facilities like the Manzini Remand Centre, where prisoners awaiting trail are kept.

A controversial decree by King Mswati III, denying bail to some categories of accused, has worsened the problem.

Prison warders are underpaid, their ranks depleted by AIDS and, burdened with a burgeoning prison population, they are hard-pressed to enforce good behaviour among inmates.

"We call the prison wardens the bosses," said Michael. "They know what is going on. But they leave prisoners to sort things out for ourselves."

When Michael first spoke of his prison experience a year ago in the local press, Correctional Services authorities produced a dozen inmates then serving time, and each one refuted his account. They said no sodomy occurred in prison, and they challenged Michael to shed his anonymity so they could confront him face to face.

A year later, the prison authorities have reversed their position. Too many former inmates had gone public, exposing prison conditions, and confirming the dawning realisation that the general public was endangered by the spread of AIDS among prisoners.

"We have always resisted issuing condoms to inmates because to do so would be to tacitly condone sexual acts," Correctional Services Commissioner Mguni Simelane told PlusNews.

A warder, who asked to be named only as Simon, said he supported demands by health NGOs for the provision of condoms in prison - a significant step in this conservative kingdom, despite an HIV-prevalence rate of nearly 45 percent among Swazis in their twenties.

"There is too much sodomy. I wrote to my superiors about it. In my letter, I said, 'You know, you get a three-month sentence in Swaziland, and it is a death sentence, because of HIV'," Simon said.

"You get 60 guys in a cell, sodomy is going to happen. If a prisoner complains to us, we punish the perpetrator. We are obliged to do this by the rules," he commented. "But then the others will go after the one who complains, and they'll punish him."

Simon, who has been a prison warder for 12 years, has seen enough to give survival tips.

"If you have a friend in prison, the best thing you can do for him is give him an unlimited supply of cigarettes. In prison, cigarettes are more valuable than money [is] on the outside. You use cigarettes to buy protection. Muscle isn't enough. How do you fight six other prisoners at once? I tell these guys who are vulnerable to abuse, 'For God’s sake, get someone you know on the outside to send you a package. It's your only hope'," he said.

The position of UNAIDS, the joint UN agency programme on HIV/AIDS, is clear. "Recognising the fact that sexual contact does occur and cannot be stopped in prison settings, and given the high risk of disease transmission that it carries, UNAIDS believes that it is vital that condoms, together with lubricant, should be readily available to prisoners. This should be done either using dispensing machines, or supplies in the prison medical service."
HIV in prisons

June 2003

Lead Feature
  • Human Rights Watch - Prisons in Africa
  • In But Free - an HIV/AIDS prison project in Zambia that involves peer educators. []
  • HIV/AIDS in Prison: Problems, Policies and Potential - a report by the Institute for Security Studies
  • South African Department of Correctional Services
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