Slow motion death in prison

Slow motion death in prison

MASERU – “IT is not the prisoners who need reformation, it is the prisons,” said Oscar Wilde, a famous Irish poet, way back in the 19th century. Yet, it stands true of Lesotho’s prisons today. Inmates in Lesotho’s prisons are braving grave conditions daily. The situation is bad for those with chronic health conditions, especially so inmates living with HIV. Thabo Moleko knows the situation all too well. An inmate at the Maseru Central Correctional facility, Moleko paints a grim picture of conditions that make prisons a fertile breeding ground for disease and death.

Moleko, who seemed to have had shaved his head over a week earlier and his hair had started growing, was so shy that he could not look people in the eyes. He was speaking looking at the floor. But he was willing to talk about the situation he is being forced to endure, especially as an inmate living with HIV. So bad is the situation that inmates share sharp objects such as razors out of necessity. “When your relatives bring you a razor for shaving your beard, after using it you pass it to another inmate who doesn’t have it,” he says.

Moleko was speaking at a workshop organised by the Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (LENEPWHA) last Thursday. “Inmates whose relatives and friends do not visit depend on other inmates for toiletries,” Moleko says. It is not only razorblades that are up for sharing in prison. Because government does not provide some provisions, inmates end up sharing items such as toothbrushes, combs, nail cutters and face towels brought by relatives despite the health risks. Moleko was already living with HIV when he was imprisoned. Others get infected while inside.

The nurse at the prison Tanki Putsoane confirmed the unavailability of provisions for inmates. Speaking at the same workshop, Putsoane said risk factors for HIV infections in prison include sharing of skin piercing materials, sexual activity (both consensual and non-consensual) and violence. He said a 2011 study showed that many inmates were infected with HIV while in prison. “This suggests that there are new infections that occur during incarceration,” he said. Putsoane said 710 male inmates at Maseru Central institution are HIV positive, with 174 of them on antiretroviral treatment. There are 56 female inmates living with HIV and 28 are on life prolonging antiretroviral drugs.

Putsoane said a 2011 study showed an HIV prevalence rate of 31.4 percent in prisons. The workshop, organised by the Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (LENEPWHA), discussed the challenges faced by key populations living with HIV.  These groups include gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers, transgender persons, and prisoners. There are slightly above 2 000 prisoners in Lesotho, according to the 2014 World Prison Brief Data. The LCS spokesman Superintendent Neo Mopeli refused to reveal the exact number of prison inmates, citing “security concerns”.

There are 14 prisons countrywide, including six women prisons, a juvenile training centre and an open camp. A 2016 study by Sonke Gender Justice described prisons as a high-risk environment for HIV transmission. Further, prisoners who are already HIV-infected often end up with very weak immune systems because of overcrowded living conditions, stress, malnutrition, drugs and violence that is so prevalent in prisons, making them more susceptible to getting ill, according to the report. “But, in spite of this knowledge, the health and well-being of prisoners is often neglected and overlooked,” read part of the study.

Sonke Gender Justice identified several factors that expose the prisoners to HIV infection as well as tuberculosis. Its report says others are sexually assaulted. Some are coerced into sexual intercourse in exchange for toiletries, food, cigarettes or other privileges such as protection from gangs. According to the Sonke Gender Justice report, prison facilities do not regularly supply enough “Play kits”. The “Play kits” comprise of condoms and lubricants. Putsoane, the chief nurse, says authorities were taking some measures to ease the problem. He said there is now a Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) service in prisons. He also said condom and lubricant programming and Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) were now available in prisons.

Putsoane said since 2014, 663 inmates have been circumcised. The Lesotho Correctional Service (LCS) has deployed health professionals to provide services in prisons, he said. “That is in line with the Correctional Service Act of 2016, section 41,” Putsoane said. The Act obligates the government to provide inmates with access to health services. LENEPHWA Executive Director, Maketekete Thotolo, said the organisation “would like to see an increased access for health services when it comes to key populations”.

’Makhotso Rakotsoane

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