/ 20 April 2006

Minister slams inmates who want anti-retrovirals

Forcing the Department of Correctional Services to provide anti-retrovirals to Aids-infected inmates was highly opportunistic, Minister of Correctional Services Ngconde Balfour’s office said on Wednesday.

Fifteen prisoners whose health has been deteriorating have lodged an urgent high court application to compel the government to provide them with anti-retrovirals (ARVs).

”It is sad and regrettable that the urgent court application comes in the wake of fruitful interventions by the minister … to ensure that the inmates are able to receive treatment at accredited sites,” Balfour’s spokesperson Luphumzo Kebeni said.

”This commitment to assist the HIV/Aids-infected inmates, was further reiterated by the department during the government imbizo [meeting] … at the Durban-Westville correctional centre on Monday April 10 2006.

”It is highly opportunistic for some groups to bring an urgent court application to force the department … to provide ARVs to HIV/Aids-infected inmates … when the department has already initiated fruitful interventions with other government departments that would see the inmates have access to such medication,” Kebeni said.

In her founding affidavit, Anneline Michelle Govender, a researcher at the Aids Law Project, said the Department of Correctional Services had failed to provide the 15 inmates with ARVs.

”… The greater the delay in accessing ARV treatment, the greater the risk to the applicants’ health and lives,” Govender said.

The unnamed adult male prisoners are HIV-positive, with 14 having a CD4 count of 200 cells or less per cubic millilitre of blood, and the 15th a cell count slightly above 200.

A CD4 cell count reflects the strength of the body’s immune system. Treatment with anti-HIV drugs is recommended when the CD4 count falls below 250 to 200.

There were 50 prisoners with CD4 counts of less than 200 in the Medium B facility at Westville prison.

There were 78 deaths from Aids-related conditions in the prison in 2005.

Govender said the department contended that prisoners without identity documents (IDs) could not receive ARVs.

”The requirement of IDs is not, in our opinion, a real obstacle.”

Govender said the Department of Health had confirmed that the ID requirement was not strictly applied and it was willing to treat individuals without IDs, in certain circumstances.

The Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons recently announced a rise in prisoner mortality from 1,65 deaths per 1 000 prisoners a year to 9,1 deaths per 1 000 a year between 1995 and 2004.

”Research studies to determine the increasing mortality rate and its link with HIV/Aids have not been undertaken,” department spokesperson Bheki Manzini said on April 3.

”The causes of death on the death certificate are not indicated as HIV/Aids and it is therefore difficult to directly link it to HIV/Aids,” he said.

The Correctional Services Department has planned a national survey to ascertain HIV prevalence among prisoners.

On March 27, HIV/Aids support group members at Westville prison staged a hunger strike to highlight their concerns about conditions in prison, including access to ARVs.

On Wednesday, Kebeni said the aim of the group’s application was ”not [to] serve the interests of the inmates but to seek populist gains and cheap publicity … ”

”The minister cares a lot about the health of inmates, but will not in any way be intimated or blackmailed to act irresponsibly by distributing ARVs as this will be against policy directives and legislation regarding the provision of such services.

”Correctional centres are not accredited ARV sites and therefore cannot dispense such medication to inmates … Our role in this regard is entirely dependent on the primary involvement and assistance of the health department.

”The two departments together with Home Affairs are already engaging each other to ensure that the inmates receive these services,” he said.

Accusations that the department was delaying or did not want to co-operate in the provision of ARVs, ”are irresponsible and devoid of truth”.

”We dismiss them with the contempt they deserve,” Kebeni said. – Sapa