Johannesburg Prison inmates who have tested HIV-positive are stigmatised, abused and denied rights granted to other prisoners, they told Philippa Garson
‘IT’S like you’re a snake that someone caught,” says “Ben”, “a snake that everyone comes to look at.” He’s struggling to find the right words to describe what it feels like to be HIV-positive in Johannesburg Prison.
He begins to sob as he tells how he no longer has a name, no longer has rights. “My name is HIV or Aids kaffir,” he says,
The Department of Correctional Services says it fully undertands the serious implications of HIV infection. A handling strategy had been circulated to prisons, and this provided for informed consent for HIV testing, counselling before and after such tests, and confidentiality.
But prisoners tell a different story.
Ben (not his real name) described to the Mail & Guardian in detail the manner in which he and 37 other prisoners with HIV are allegedly stigmatised, verbally and physically abused and denied rights granted to other prisoners.
They were moved last month from their communal cell into isolation cells. They allege they were beaten and teargassed on the night of June 14 and herded into single cells. There they sit alone, unable to work or mingle with other prisoners, spending only three hours together each day.
Ben tells how the prisoners cough and cough in their cold, damp cells. “You can squeeze the water out of our mattresses,” he says. No one comes to counsel them. If they want to get to the prison hospital in time to see the doctor, they must bribe the warden with R2 “taxi money” to open their doors early, they allege.
As a group A prisoner, Ben, serving the last few months of a three-year sentence for theft, should be allowed to work and move fairly freely around the prison. “But because I have HIV, all my rights are taken away.”
According to the department, some of the prisoners do jobs around the prison and others are allowed to play sport and watch videos. No prisoner, says the department, is allowed to roam freely around the grounds.
After visiting a doctor last year to treat the sores on his face, Ben was tested for HIV, although he claims he was not told this.
A woman doctor broke the news that he was HIV positive in front of a queue of prisoners. “The way she told me it seemed like a joke. Half of the prisoners heard what she said.”
He was referred twice to Hillbrow hospital’s HIV clinic, but since then he has received no counselling at all. He claims that most of those with him have never been counselled.
“I counsel the others,” he says, adding that unless they are given access to social workers soon, “there will be dead bodies in this section”. He describes how a recently diagnosed prisoner tried to fling himself down three flights of stairs.
Their food is labelled “HIV” and when they go to collect it, everyone sees. Ben believes his illness is common knowledge in his home township. This is because the section where they are kept is across the way from the awaiting trial section. If granted bail, these prisoners are back on the streets, spreading the news.
Asked to comment, the Department of Correctional Services said the prisoners are detained “in a separate section of the prison to better facilitate their treatment.”
The department says that the prisoners receive “intensive medical attention” and are seen by a medical officer of the Soweto Aids Information and Training Centre on a weekly basis. The prisoners are counselled by outside psychologists once a week “according to their needs”, and receive “a special high protein diet”.
The department said it wouldn’t hesitate to investigate any breaches of this policy on prisoners with HIV.