Africa: Prisoners Bear the Brunt of HIV Prevalence and TB Incidence
By Zachary Ochieng
A new study appearing in PLoSMedicine, a peer-reviewed open access medical journal published by the American Public Library of Sciences, finds that HIV prevalence in sub-Saharan African prisons has been estimated at two to 50 times that of non-prison populations, while average tuberculosis (TB) incidence in prisons worldwide has been estimated at more than 20 times higher than in the general population. The study—titled Criminal Justice Reform as HIV and TB Prevention in African Prisons—says that overcrowding—resulting in and exacerbating food shortages, poor sanitation, and inadequate health care—contributes to the spread and development of disease.
“Minimal ventilation, poor isolation practices, and a significant immune-compromised population also facilitate the transmission of TB and the development of TB disease”, the study says.
Prison health care in Africa is under-resourced, and increased funding is needed to ensure adequate treatment is available, including anti-retroviral (ART) therapy as treatment for HIV, and for HIV and TB prevention. However, even when ART is available, certain classes of prisoners such as foreign nationals may not be receiving treatment. In addition, structural barriers, such as laws criminalizing “sodomy,” policies or practices limiting bail, and justice system problems resulting in long delays in accessing courts, impede prevention efforts and complicate the provision of care.
According to the study, prisons throughout sub-Saharan Africa are often filled far beyond their capacity. The prison populations in Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Mali, Uganda, and Zambia are over 200 per cent of capacity; in Benin, it is over three times design capacity. Overcrowding can be so severe that inmates may be forced to sleep seated, standing, or in shifts, in cells with little ventilation. These conditions violate international standards and may rise to the level of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
One reason for overcrowding is extended pre-trial detention. Half or more of the prison population consists of remanded prisoners (who have not been convicted) in Angola, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Lengthy pre-trial detention can also violate international human rights obligations, including prohibitions on mixing remanded prisoners with convicted prisoners, and have serious health consequences.
This study discusses how criminal justice system failures and limited financial resources present barriers to reducing HIV and TB transmission in prisons and how “structural rights” interventions focused upon criminal justice system reform are needed to guarantee detainees' human rights and health. To better understand structural barriers to HIV and TB prevention in African prisons, the researchers conducted a survey of prison commissioners and medical directors in East and Southern African countries with high HIV and TB rates. Written surveys were sent via email, fax, or post to prison authorities in the 18 states that are members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and East African Community (EAC). Ten surveys were returned (from Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). Topics covered in the survey included size of the prison population; available health services; HIV and tuberculosis prevalence; mortality rates; donor and government funding for health services; and challenges in health care administration. Respondents were informed of the purpose of the survey and that information provided would be publicly reported.
International law requires that individuals who are detained be brought “promptly” before a judge, and be charged or released. International law further states that individuals are entitled to trial within a “reasonable” amount of time and should not, as a general rule, be detained while awaiting trial.
Under Ugandan law, a suspect must be charged by a court within 48 hours of arrest. Yet, 85 per cent of prisoners interviewed in Uganda had not been brought before a court for an initial appearance within 48 hours. Despite a Zambian law that inmates be brought before a judge or magistrate within 24 hours of arrest, only 3 per cent of prisoners interviewed reported having seen one within that period, and one inmate reported having been detained for over 3 years before he first saw a judge .
“Pre-trial detention is routine, and even after an initial appearance, remandees are often held for years pending trial. In Uganda, the average wait is estimated at 1 year and 3 months for capital offences, such as defilement, murder, aggravated robbery, and rape, and researchers interviewed a remanded prisoner who had been imprisoned for 9 years awaiting resolution of his trial. One prisoner in Zambia, now convicted, reported being held 10 years pre-trial”, the study says.
Compounding these injustices is the fact that, in some cases, detentions are entirely arbitrary. In Zambia, for example, the police and the Drug Enforcement Commission enjoy broad powers under Zambian law and reportedly arrest and hold numerous alleged family members, friends, and by-standers as “co-conspirators” when their primary targets cannot be found. In Uganda, media reports have alleged that wide-ranging police sweeps of people in slum areas of Kampala have been driven by the prison authorities' desires to have free manpower for prison farms and to contract out prison labour to private landowners.
Lack of non-custodial sentencing, restrictions on the use of parole, and delays in appeals further contribute to overcrowding. In Uganda, use of community service as an alternative to sentencing is increasing, but is inconsistently applied and highly dependent on the magistrate. In Zambia, only inmates with longer sentences—those who have been found guilty of more serious crimes—are eligible for parole. In both countries, prisoners wait for years for a decision on their appeals.
Nearly all African prison administrators in the survey cited inadequate funding as the most significant challenge to their ability to deliver health care. Prison authorities in Tanzania also cited insufficient numbers of qualified medical personnel; Swazi authorities cited poor infrastructure for health, as well as absence of a medical officer trained in HIV treatment; Zimbabwean authorities cited inadequate equipment, physical infrastructure, and training of health personnel in TB and HIV management; South African authorities cited shortages of health care professionals and lack of appropriate facilities for the management of communicable diseases; Malawian officials cited a shortage of medical equipment and drugs; and Mauritian prison authorities noted insufficient health staff. Furthermore, a recently published analysis found that, between 2003 and 2010, only one of the ten countries in the Southern African region and four of the ten countries in the East African region with Global Fund-supported TB programmes included TB interventions within prison settings.
International human rights law requires that states maintain adequate prison conditions and provide a minimum level of health care to individuals in detention; care must also be at least equivalent to that available to the general population. Despite these protections, the researchers found significant gaps in the availability of HIV- and TB-related prevention and care in Zambia and Uganda. For example, although prisons expanded HIV testing in both countries in recent years, access to testing is limited and treatment is inadequate. In 2010, the Zambia Prisons Service employed only 14 health staff—including one physician—to serve its 16,666 prisoners across 86 prisons, and had no prison-based antiretroviral therapy (ART) or TB treatment facilities. Of Uganda's 223 prisons, only one prison hospital provided prison-based ART and TB treatment.
The survey found that treatment in community-based facilities is theoretically possible at some prisons; however, access to care is frequently controlled by medically untrained prison guards. Lack of adequate prison staff, transportation, and fuel for the transfer of sick prisoners, as well as security fears, keep inmates from accessing medical care outside of prisons, in some cases for weeks after they fall ill. In Uganda, the researchers found that prisoners requiring transfer to facilities with HIV or TB treatment may be denied or delayed care, and instead forced into a brutal hard labour system. Prisoners receiving ART or TB treatment were sometimes transferred away from the one prison-based facility where they could receive medical care in order to ease congestion or provide labour on farms.
While nearly all prisoners return to the community, many serve multiple short sentences, cycling in and out of prison. Visitors and prison officers also link prisons to the community, bridging prison health and public health. The study recommends that both increased resources for health, as well as structural interventions addressing criminal justice failures, are necessary to address HIV and TB and advance prisoner and public health.
“African governments have a responsibility to address the life-threatening conditions in prisons, which are contrary to international law and standards, and to improve prisoners' access to justice. Both African governments and international health donors should fund justice initiatives and other structural interventions to address HIV and TB in prisons and the general population in Africa”, the researchers conclude.