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Sexual abuse behind bars

[Liberia] Prisonners in Liberia. [Date picture taken: 11/01/2005]
The prisons service found an HIV-infection level of almost 10 percent among inmates. (Eric Kanalstein/UNMIL)

Sexual abuse is widespread in South Africa's prisons, but the provision of health services to this vulnerable population remains problematic.

A rights group, Just Detention International (JDI), alleges that overcrowding, staff shortages and a culture of violence in correctional facilities are fuelling sexual abuse and rape - crimes against which there is little or no protection.

JDI Programme Director Cynthia Totten said a recent study at South Africa's Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, 25km outside Cape Town, found that inmates at high risk of HIV infection had inadequate access to condoms, lubricant and medical services.

In some cases, forced or coerced sex in prison may be part of being initiated into one of South Africa's notorious "Numbers gangs", like the infamous 27s and 28s, said Sasha Gear, a researcher at the South Africa-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

In other cases it may be about manipulation, like being tricked into accumulating a debt in the form of drugs, food or protection that will have to be repaid with sex, she told IRIN/PlusNews.

"I met a 15-year-old boy in prison who said he would look after me ... he invited me to sleep with him [in the same bunk] for protection, and in the middle of the night he sodomised me," one inmate told Totten. "I was angry and demoralized ... this wasn't supposed to happen to me."

As of March 2008, most of South Africa's prisons were housing 50 percent more prisoners than they were designed to accommodate, according to comments submitted to parliament by then Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour.

Big court cases, little change

Despite a ground-breaking ruling in 2006 that guaranteed access to treatment for prisoners, Totten said there had been little change, and the quality of HIV-related health services varied from prison to prison.

"All inmates are supposed to have access to condoms, but it's so problematic in prisons that once the dispenser runs out of condoms it could be months or weeks before it's refilled," she said. "And where condoms are distributed, there's no lubricant, so you find inmates using substitutes for lubricant that could comprise the condoms' integrity."

Data on HIV prevalence among inmates are hard to come by, but a 2006 survey by the Department of Correctional Services in its Westville prison, outside the east-coast port of Durban, indicated an infection rate of 22 percent.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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