AT least 51% of inmates currently held in the country’s 41 prisons are infected with HIV/Aids, with limited strategies to fight its spread, a study released last week revealed.
The sobering statistics come at a time when the country is battling to combat the epidemic on a number of fronts amid accusations of a slow government response to the crisis.
The report, compiled by the independent Institute of Correctional and Security Studies, paints a grim picture and points to an Aids disaster unfolding in the country’s prisons where more than 25 000 people are currently held.
“It is a sad reality,” said researcher Tadesse Hussein Ali. “An estimated 51,4% of inmates held in Zimbabwean prisons as of April 2004 were infected with Aids,” he said in the Zimbabwe Report contained in his study into the State of Prisons in the Sadc region.
He said hundreds of prisoners were released back into society every month – bringing infections with them.
“The major hurdle facing Zimbabwe today is the limited access to public health services. Unfortunately, this is the community that these ex-convicts return to.”
The report states that Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS) has never carried out research on HIV prevalence in its jails, an assertion vehemently denied by prison officials.
Last year the Ministry of Health reported that 1,82 million of the country’s 12,5 million people were living with the disease.
Hassen Ali accuses ZPS of downplaying the extent of HIV in the prisons. He states that since 1999, reported cases of HIV/Aids in the country’s jails has shot up by more than 500%, albeit from a low baseline.
The report also states that natural deaths in prisons have surged by more than 400% over the same period and now stands at more than eight per 1 000 prisoners. Most of the deaths are attributed to Aids-related illnesses, mainly tuberculosis.
Hassen Ali said the spread of the disease was being hastened by overcrowding, with reports that facilities designed to handle 16 000 inmates are now housing more than 25 000 prisoners, in some cases with as many as 50 inmates crammed into a cell.
ZPS assistant spokesperson, Simon Kaondo, said the correctional department had launched a number of programmes to combat the disease.
“We are running peer education programmes, disseminating information to prisoners about Aids. We have even started the provision of anti-retroviral drugs in prisons,” said Kaondo.
Hassen Ali urged prison officials to distribute condoms in jails to curb the spread of the disease. He argued that homosexuality was rampant in jails and also suggested that prisoners should be allowed conjugal visits.
President Robert Mugabe is on record expressing his strong revulsion against homosexuals whom he has described as worse that dogs and pigs.