Stopping sexual abuse and the spread of HIV amongst inmates: Sonke works in 10 South African correctional centres

Sonke Gender Justice

Sexual abuse and HIV plague detention facilities in South Africa. However, people in prison are already being punished by having their freedom taken away from them. They are not there to experience additional forms of punishment or harm. Sexual abuse and HIV amongst inmates are first and foremost a matter of inmates’ human rights, but their experiences in detention impact us all. To address these issues, Sonke conducts training with inmates and correctional officials in correctional centres in the Western Cape and Gauteng.

In February of this year, Sonke staff members conducted extensive training sessions in 10 correctional centres reaching almost 350 inmates and correctional officials. Sonke provided participants with information on HIV prevention, prompted discussion on gender relations and sexuality, and facilitated sessions on addressing sexual abuse in prisons.

Sexual abuse and HIV are inherently linked in South Africa. This is especially true in correctional centres, where estimates of HIV prevalence in South African correctional centres range from 20% – 60%, well above the national average. It is likely closer to 40%, as reported by the Inspecting Judge of Correctional Centres.

Sexual violence in our prisons is linked to gang violence and its power structures. Research suggests that prisoner rape fuels a cycle of victimisation: once an inmate has been sexually assaulted, that inmate becomes a target for repeated abuse. Even inmates who are not raped are forced to adapt to an environment in which anyone not seen as hyper-masculine and dominant is at risk for sexual abuse. In turn, the sexual violence and rigid gender roles inside prison contribute to the rape of women, men, and children and to the spread of HIV outside prison, when inmates are released. Violence in prison fuels future violence, inside and beyond prison walls.

Sexual abuse is a reality, and one that is often accepted by society as an inevitable “part of the punishment” for inmates. Think of the infamous Brandhouse “Drive Dry” television advert, which was aimed at scaring potential drunk drivers with the promise of being raped by thuggish inmates should they get arrested for drunk driving. Sadly, some people argue that inmates deserve what they “get” behind bars. Meanwhile, inmates and their loved ones suffer.

The Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) – the independent prisons watchdog body, found in 2007 that nearly half of all surveyed inmates reported that sexual abuse in prison happens either “sometimes”, “often”, or “very often”.  This is also supported by extensive research produced by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Just Detention International, and Sonke, and others.

Each year, 360 000 inmates circulate in and out of South Africa’s prisons, and it is estimated that there is an 80% recidivism rate. This means that most inmates will end up returning to prison. The connection is clear: what happens to inmates does not stay in prisons, it impacts everyone.

The issues of HIV and sexual abuse are worse for remand (unsentenced) detainees who spend up to 2 years in prison awaiting their trials. These detainees make up 30% of the prison population, and a staggering 14% of them are youth.

What Sonke is doing

Sonke conducts peer education training with inmates, providing them with a space to reflect on their experiences, facilitating discussion on how gender inequality impacts the HIV pandemic and gender-based violence in SA’s communities, and providing them with information to protect themselves from the virus. This work is complemented by training sessions with warders and other correctional officials, strengthening their HIV knowledge, and providing a forum to examine the issue of sexual abuse amongst inmates, and map out possible actions to prevent, detect and respond to incidents.

Working with officials is crucial, and it is an exercise that often leaves Sonke staff feeling optimistic; with committed individuals in place, it is possible to stop rape and the spread of HIV in prisons.

Officials often reflect that they feel empowered with the knowledge they receive, and that they experience a shift in their attitude towards inmates. Many express that they want to help and provide responsive services, and to protect those in their custody. After each training session, officials have requested more information, more resources, and for Sonke and its partners to return to their centre. The next step is to ensure that DCS management participates in these sessions, to promote a supportive environment for changing practices to help prevent abuse and HIV.

It is critical that a policy is put in place to specifically address sexual abuse in correctional centres, as none currently exists.  A draft policy framework was developed through collaboration between CSVR, Just Detention International, and members of DCS who are committed to ending sexual abuse in their correctional centres. Though this policy framework was drafted in 2010, its adoption is still pending.

Meanwhile, training will continue over the next months, and hopefully, the coming years. It is vital to protect the rights of inmates to be free from HIV and sexual abuse. After all, these are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children. Inmate rights are human rights.

See, for example, Ghanotakis et al, “Stop Prison Rape in South Africa”. Agenda; 2007, and CSVR “Situational Analysis of Boksburg Youth Centre, Sexual Violence in Prison pilot Project: Survey Report 2006”.