Sonke intensifies its work in Prisons

Levels of HIV in South African prisons are extremely high, and Sonke has long believed that it is important to work directly with prisoners to promote HIV prevention and treatment, and gender transformation. In order to try and address the need to reduce new HIV infections and increase positive living amongst staff and inmates both while in prison and upon release, in 2007 Sonke started working in prisons in the Western Cape and has now worked in almost all prisons across the province as well as in a smaller number of prisons in Gauteng.

Sikhangele Mabulu, the current project coordinator said, “The project seeks to reduce new HIV infections in prisons by identifying social networks amongst inmates and popular opinion leaders on risk-reduction advocacy roles. … Towards achieving the intended goal, Sonke has trained the Department of Correctional Services staff and inmates on HIV prevention, gender and health.”

According to the 2009 – 2010 annual report of the Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons, there are 239 correctional centres currently operational, with approximately 164,000 persons detained in these centres. These facilities are only designed to accommodate 118,158 inmates and over-crowding is a perennial problem despite the opening of the new Kimberley Correctional Centre and renovation of other centres.1 Men make up nearly 70% of the incarcerated population.2 Overcrowding in correctional facilities is an especially worrisome issue when viewed in relation to South Africa’s health challenges. In the prison setting, HIV transmission and vulnerability are exacerbated by poor nutrition, inadequate condom provision, and little to no distribution of disinfectant products or condom lubrication.3 It is widely acknowledged that: “The quality of prison health care, compared to that available to the general public, is deplorable, and there is little reason to assume that the care specifically for those who are HIV positive is an exception.”4

Chapter 8 of the Jali Commission’s Report presented evidence that rape is widespread in prison and called for action from Government:

“If the Department [of Correctional Services] keeps on ignoring the fact that sexual abuse is rife in our Prisons and that there is an extreme likelihood that prisoners who are exposed to violent unprotected sex will in all likelihood contract AIDS, then it is effectively, by omission, imposing a death sentence on vulnerable prisoners.”5

HIV infection rates among offenders are higher than those among the general population. A study of over 10,000 prisoners nationwide found HIV prevalence of 19.8% (the national HIV population average is 16.3%). 94% of infections were found among men, and just 6% among women – this despite men making up just 70% of those in correctional facilities.6 Because of certain limitations to the study (like a low participation rate amongst inmates, and the exclusion unsentenced prisoners) this prevalence is however still regarded as likely markedly lower than actual prevalence.

A country profile on drugs and crime recorded a 484% increase in deaths in South African prisons between 1995 and 2000. According to post-mortems conducted, most of those deaths are believed to have been the result of HIV/AIDS.7

Sonke’s Prisons Project

It is within this context that Sonke is working with the support of the Western Cape Department of Health.

Training with prison inmates focuses to a large extent on addressing HIV and AIDS prevention because of the wide prevalence of HIV in the prisons. “We constantly disseminate information that encourages responsible behaviour amongst inmates and staff in relation to HIV and AIDS, gender, sexual and reproductive health issues”, explained Mabulu.

Sonke has adapted the One Man Can training for use in prisons. With a greater emphasis on STIs and building capacity of peer educators, the training addresses all aspects of HIV, as well as topics such as condom use, Sexual Transmitted Infections (STI), tuberculosis and gender. The gender elements of the training focus on the fact that gender equality benefits not only women and children but also men, including those in the prisons.

Trained peer educators then conduct further activities in the prisons, including distribution of reading materials and promotion of HIV testing. Sonke also conducts Information Education and Counseling talks in the selected prisons.

Sonke has been working in prisons for a number of years, and although this project cycle comes to an end at the end of March 2011, we look forward to obtaining further support for this work and continuously improving the programme, and expanding the number of prisons in which we are active.

Partnership for launch of sexual violence resource

On the 13 May 2011 Sonke will be co-hosting an event to launch a new resource for prison staff. This is in partnership with the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative (CSPRI) and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR). The event will take place in Johannesburg and bring together stakeholders to discuss strategies to address sexual violence in prison, as well as introduce and invite discussion on the recently published CSVR booklet, “Lets End It Now! Stopping Sexual Violence in Correctional Centres: A resource for staff”. The resource booklet (by Sasha Gear and Heather Barclay) aims to assist prison staff in preventing and responding to sexual violence in (mostly men’s) prisons, and to promote inmates’ sexual health. It covers a range of relevant issues (including responsibilities of correctional officers and inmates, sex and sexual violence in correctional centres, consent and coercion, sexuality and gender, the trauma of sexual violence, HIV transmission, responding to sexual violence in correctional centres). The details of the event will shortly be available on our website at If you would like to reserve a place please contact Angelica: or Mwenda:

  1. South African Department of Correctional Services Basic Information. “Incarceration Levels.” 2007.
  2. South African Department of Correctional Services Basic Information. “Inmates Gender Breakdown.” 2007.
  3. Goyer KC, Gow J. Alternatives to Current HIV/AIDS Policies and Practices in South African Prisons. Journal of Public Health Policy, 2002; 23(20003): 308-310.
  4. Goyer and Gow (2002) op. cit. p308
  5. The Jali Commission of inquiry into alleged incidents of corruption, maladministration, violence or intimidation into the department of correctional services appointed by order of the president of the Republic of South Africa in terms of proclamation no. 135 of 2001, as amended. (2005) Final Report
  6. Lim’uvune Consulting (2007): Report on Provision of Unlinked, Anonymous HIV and syphilis prevalence study to the Department of Correctional Services. February. Muntingh, L (2008). The prevalence of HIV in South Africa’s prison system: Some but not all the facts, at last. CSPRI Newsletter No 26, May.
  7. CADRE, 2003, Gender-Based Violence and HIV/AIDS in South Africa: A Literature Review.