Prisons and the New NSP: Nobody left behind?
Evidence has shown that prisons are a key battleground in the fight against HIV and TB. Prison populations are transient, and inmates are released back into their communities, taking with them all of the infections and unhealthy behaviours learned in prison. This means that any HIV and TB plan that doesn’t address the drivers of HIV and TB in prisons will fall woefully short of achieving its goals. And sadly, the latest draft of the NSP, with its inadequate prison-focused interventions, looks set to do just that.
The first draft of the NSP, released in November 2016, was cause for some jubilation for prisoners’ rights activists, for the first time including inmates as an HIV key population and incorporating important human rights language and interventions for prisons. However, we may have celebrated too soon, as two drafts later, following a far from transparent or inclusive political process, the prison-focused language has been markedly stripped down.
Although inmates remain a key population for both HIV and TB, and recipients of a core package of services targeting key populations, the NSP is missing interventions directed at addressing the causes of the TB and HIV epidemics in prisons: insufficient infection control, non-implementation of the Policy to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Inmates, dismal levels of overcrowding , inadequate ventilation, and insufficient re-integration support or linkage to care for ex-inmates upon release, to list but a few.
The latest draft includes as an objective, ‘Train correctional and detention centre staff regarding the prevention and health care needs and human rights of detainees and inmates living with or at risk of HIV and TB.’ However, sexual violence and overcrowding in prisons, which are key drivers of HIV and TB respectively, do not feature in any objectives. Surely any plan directed at training correctional centre staff on the prevention of HIV should look first to existing policies, of which the Policy to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Inmates is an excellent one. Why not include the implementation of this policy as an objective? Likewise, if we are to reduce TB infection rates, the plan should at the very least include amongst its objectives a strategy to reduce overcrowding.
The Departments of Correctional Services and Health receive plenty of money to fund their TB and HIV response, which they are using to test and screen inmates. However, they can counsel and screen as much as they like; until plans are developed and fully implemented to address the drivers of the epidemics, attempts to contain and beat them back will continue to have minimal impact.
International donors need to push DCS for a more comprehensive approach, greater transparency and better data. We cannot continue simply to roll out treatment blindly. If we are going to win this fight, we need to cut off these diseases at the knees.
Inmates and ex-inmates would have been the most qualified to suggest effective strategies for preventing TB and HIV in prisons, and effective support for reintegration of ex-inmates into their communities. However, the inclusion of key populations in NSP consultations was made difficult, if not impossible by SANAC’s dismal organisation and planning that left important participants stranded and ultimately not consulted. Not only this, but the processes through which provisions are included or left out was entirely opaque, leaving stakeholders frustrated and in the dark, and SANAC, unaccountable.
So, what should the targets be?
- Full implementation of the DCS Policy to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Inmates in DCS Facilities: Sexual abuse is prevalent in prisons, and is a recognised driver of the spread of HIV inside prisons. Unless urgent steps are taken to detect, prevent and respond to sexual violence in prison, transmission of HIV will continue.
- Full implementation of a TB infection control policy: Prevention is better than cure and raising awareness among inmates that windows should be left open is not adequate. Steps need to be taken to decrease overcrowding, to ensure that cells have sufficient cross-ventilation and to allow inmates to spend more time spent outside of their cells. The NSP must set more concrete targets in this regard.
- Urgent steps need to be taken to address extreme overcrowding in prisons: TB and HIV infection control policies will continue to have limited impact until overcrowding is decreased. Studies show that implementation of national cell occupancy recommendations could reduce TB transmission risk by 30%. The NSP must set concrete and measurable targets in this regard and map out a clear and workable strategy to eliminate overcrowding as soon as possible.
- An effective prison oversight body with sufficient independence and powers to investigate and refer complaints needs to be established to replace the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services: this will ensure that DCS policies are adhered to, and their obligations met. It will also provide a safe avenue through which inmates may submit complaints. Improved linkage to care between prisons and communities, and support groups for ex-inmates: Inmates need to receive counseling, a copy of their medical file and a referral to a clinic accessible to their community to enable adherence to treatment once they leave prison. They also need ongoing support to avoid re-offending. These services are currently lacking. In order for this to happen simple systems need to be put in place, and the DCS, DOH and DSD need to work together to ensure that there is no loss to care in the transition between incarceration and freedom.
- An effective collaboration in real time between the DCS and NDOH to ensure that new NSP policies, like Universal Test and Treat and condom distribution are implemented with no delay.
We hope that the final NSP 2017-2022 will take heed of this advice, and look forward to an NSP that is actually strategic and truly leaves nobody behind.
 Sonke Gender Justice
 Zonk’izizwe Odds Development