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Nam in denial about jail sex

September 19, 2008
Denver Isaacs
The Namibian

NAMIBIA'S efforts to control the spread of HIV-AIDS will be of little effect unless human rights violations against prisoners receive equal attention, a new study by the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) suggests.

While the proposal to allow condoms in prisons has been discussed and dismissed by Parliament level several times, the LAC's AIDS Law Unit says too much emphasis is being placed on notions of morality instead of the reality of what is going on behind prison bars.

Officially, Government reports that 12 per cent of the prison population is infected with HIV.

This figure has been questioned by LAC Director Norman Tjombe, who says with a national HIV rate of about 20 per cent, it is more realistic to estimate Namibia's prison rate to equal or even exceed this number.

"Either that or the country is picking its prison population in such a way that it only takes those people not infected," he says.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, Namibia currently ranks among the top five African countries with the highest per-capita rates of imprisonment, at 267 per 100 000 people currently in prison or in pre-trial detention.

And despite claims to the contrary, the organisation says the study proves once again that not only does sex take place in prisons, but also that very limited Government oversight is practised to ensure adherence to the country's national policy on HIV-AIDS.

"If we think that we can win by only fighting HIV in communities and neglecting prisons, then we are mistaken.

When prisoners leave prison, they (may) send HIV home to their families," says Amon Ngavetene, project co-ordinator for the AIDS Law Unit.

HIV infections in prison are the result of two main factors - the conditions of the cells and the behaviour of prisoners, Ngavetene suggests.

Problems with the conditions in the cells include overcrowding, the mixing of juveniles with adult offenders, a lack of access to hygienic products and complaints about food and nutrition.

One former inmate interviewed said although shaving is a requirement, no hygienic means for doing so is provided.

"We only use one razor for all inmates to share.

You shave, then I shave...

on down the line.

Then the razor is given back to the wardens," he is reported as saying.

Prisoner behaviour often involves violence, the study shows, and this often includes rape, although that is not the only reason for the occurrence of sex between inmates.

"One time I received a proposition from another inmate to be his 'lady'," one prisoner told the researchers.

"I fought that person using my fists.

I was touched on the buttocks by the inmate and so I used my toothbrush to stab him, but it wasn't sharp enough to penetrate the skin.

The perpetrator never bothered me again...

Those who cannot fight become victims of sodomy," the interviewee said.

Prison wardens are also implicated in such acts, the report claims, either by ignoring incidents they see happening for fear of their own safety, or by performing illegal acts themselves.

"At the Windhoek Police station, wardens would have sexual relationships with women in custody.

I got this information from the person providing food to the inmates.

I also saw it with my own eyes - they were in an intimate relationship.

What I thought then was that those who were in a relationship with the wardens would receive better treatment - I was not in that type of relationship," a former inmate from Keetmanshoop is quoted as saying.

The report lists a number of recommendations to the President, Parliament and prison authorities on how to deal with the issue.

Recommendations to Parliament include addressing the problem of overcrowded prison and holding cells; reducing sentences for petty crimes and appropriating additional funds to build and expand prison facilities; and to abolish the common law prohibiting sodomy - with the intention of getting condoms to be officially distributed in prisons.

Recommendations to the prison authorities include the formulation of a national policy on HIV-AIDS in prisons to ensure the uniform application of such policy in all prisons and Police holding cells, rather than allowing each to operate at their own discretion as is currently the case.

Recommendations to the President include the establishment of a centralised database or repository of records to keep track of prisoners' health records as they move through the prison system.

The report was compiled with the assistance of the University of Wyoming's College of Law.

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