- Posted September 25, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The Africa we don't see
Harsh Realities of Prison Compounded by Fears of HIV
Erin Carson spent a month in Kenya reporting on the effects of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic with her reporting partner Carol Andisi. Their reporting focused on how some of the most marginalized groups in society gain access to HIV prevention tools, education, and care.
Story and Photos by Erin Carson
Reporting by Erin Carson and Carol Andisi
NGERIA, KENYA — Going to prison is one of the worst things that can happen in a person’s life. It takes away the most basic human right of freedom. Even if the sentence is short, the effects of the incarceration can last long after the cell doors open.
Most prisoners landed there because of bad decisions they made. Part of the rehabilitation process is learning to accept responsibility for those decisions. Sometimes that rehabilitation process is interrupted, though, by other factors that weren’t part of the plan for punishment and rehabilitation. The culture of violence, the stress of being confined, and the isolation of being away from loved ones takes a toll.
Contracting a life-changing, fatal disease like HIV could compound this already traumatic experience.
The Kenya Prisons Service estimates that around ten percent of all inmates are infected with HIV. There isn’t a system in place to track how many came to prison already infected, and how many contracted the virus while behind bars, but the percentage of people infected with HIV in prisons is double that of the general population.
Linah Kipkulei, a counselor who works with inmates through the HIV outreach and treatment program AMPATH, said cases of men having sex with men in prisons are more common than reported, and the secretive culture of it makes the risk of HIV transmission higher. Kipkulei said the resources counselors would generally provide to help people protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases can’t be offered in prisons because the sexual activities aren’t supposed to be happening in the first place.
The warden at a prison we visited spoke as if there wasn’t a problem of high-risk behavior, but inmates told a different story. Prison officials often can’t or won’t admit there is a problem because the activities are socially taboo. Counselors cannot offer comprehensive prevention tools because of restrictions. And inmates know there are risks but lack the tools to protect themselves.
A PRISON THAT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE A PRISON
Ngeria Farms Prison is situated on about 2000 acres near Eldoret, Kenya. It doesn’t look much like a prison. Palm trees line the dirt road that leads to the main compound.
Men of various ages in striped uniforms speckle the vast grassy land. There is barbwire and gating, but it is far from an Alcatraz-esque environment. If not for the odd clothing and armed guards, you may not know you were in a prison yard at all. It could easily be a fenced farming compound.
Still, the realities of prison life are here. Inmate Gabriel Nyamai is not your “typical” prisoner. Most are illiterate and uneducated, with histories of crime. He is educated and had a good job before a night of drinking ended in tragedy, with his friend dead. He only brushes the surface about what landed him in Ngeria on manslaughter charges. He calls it, “a sad short story.”
He speaks freely about the hierarchy in prison and how it contributes to the spread of HIV. Because men are away from wives and girlfriends, he said there are sexual needs they must find new ways to satisfy, and some do this by preying on younger, weaker inmates.
These newer inmates, who are usually between 18 and 24, according to Nyamai, seek simple perks like soap, and protection from violence. He said sometimes they do not realize what agreements they are getting themselves into until it’s too late.
“This boy knows that this person is like his mother, like his parent. He provides everything,” Nyamai said, “So this boy will love this man. But, the problem is that he is loving and trusting a hardened criminal. And this man will introduce him to whatever he wants to introduce him to.”
AMPATH workers like Kipkulei offer counseling to inmates to help them cope with the prison environment, but she says when it comes to actually preventing the spread of HIV, all they can offer is education and testing.
“They are not allowed to have condoms, so we just do counseling, and it’s upon them to decide, because there is nothing we can do after counseling,” she said. Some activists and healthcare workers lobby around the world for the distribution of condoms in prisons, but Kipkulei said that is not the best solution. She said it would encourage unwanted behavior. Instead, she said that conjugal visits with wives and girlfriends should be allowed under Kenyan law, and that prisoners should not be idle.
Although there are AIDS Control Units at each prison in Kenya, there are still problems with the spread of HIV, and the crisis isn’t faced head on. Barnaba Keino, Officer-in-Charge at Ngeria, said HIV affects all walks of life in Kenya, including his staff and prisoners, but when it came to discussing the spread within prison walls in non-abstract terms, he was reserved.
He chuckled uncomfortably and said, “They can do some funny things without the knowledge of authority, but it is rare.” He said the majority of cases of HIV in prisons are people who were already infected when they were incarcerated.
Talking about men having sex with men is very taboo in Kenya. For Officer Keino to admit that it happens within his facility would not be socially acceptable. Still, the fact that AMPATH workers come to test prisoners on a fairly regular basis acknowledges in a small way that prisoners may be spreading it to each other through sex while incarcerated.