By Insight Post Uganda
Uganda Prisons Service (UPS) finds itself embroiled in a contentious debate in the wake of mounting speculation and media reports surrounding the surge of HIV prevalence in jail centres.
Amidst a bulk of accusations and public scrutiny, the UPS has taken its stand in defending the role of homosexuality in the rise of HIV prevalence among incarcerated individuals.
Despite widespread perceptions, UPS contends that while homosexuality could secretly exist within prisons, they do not solely account for the alarming spike in infections.
Frank Baine, the Prisons Spokesperson, elaborates on the complex dynamics at play and sheds light on additional reckless practices that contribute to the spread of HIV in jail centres.
According to Baine, a significant number of inmates in prison were serving sentences or facing trial for cases involving rape and defilement.
He highlights that in such situations, individuals often neglect to use condoms, increasing the risk of HIV transmission. Many prisoners only realise that their actions exposed them to HIV infection once they are already in jail.
While the national average HIV prevalence is 6.5%, Baine acknowledges that among inmates, the rates are higher, with 13% for females and 11% for males.
He further questions the claim that homosexuality was the main cause of HIV prevalence in prisons, as the higher rates among females contradicted this assumption. Baine emphasized that these figures were based on examinations conducted during inmate entry or medical check-ups.
Contrary to stories in the media, he clarifies that some inmates contract HIV due to a lack of awareness about how the virus is spread. He cited examples of inmates using sharp objects like razorblades to clean their bodies and unknowingly sharing them, which could lead to HIV transmission.
The Uganda Prisons Service currently oversees 76,493 inmates across the country, with total personnel of 14,461 deployed at 269 prison stations. Overcrowding in jails has often been cited as a contributing factor to same-sex relationships among inmates.
The Prisons Service has repeatedly stated that their facilities have experienced a significant increase in the number of inmates, which is often attributed to case backlogs in the courts.
One year ago, UPS reported having more than 6,000 inmates in an undefined legal state, where suspects have no clear trial jurisdiction.
According to UPS, over 6,000 inmates were committed by lower courts to face trial in the High Court, but their trials have not commenced for a period of two to three years.
In 2018, Dr. Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Prisons, told a breakfast meeting focused on the Presidential Fast-Track Initiative (PFTI) that homosexuality was among inmates and staff and was considered a risk factor for HIV transmission in prisons.
It was further revealed that some male staff members admitted to having engaged in sex with other men and this was particularly common among staff members aged 20-24 years.
Byabashaija added that the issue of homosexuality among inmates remains a concern, although it is not clear when or how such activities occur.
However, he attributed it to the sexual starvation of the inmates, noting that addressing the issue of homosexuality within prisons poses a challenge, as providing condoms to prisoners could be seen as promoting homosexuality, which is illegal in Uganda.
Byabashaija said they are instead encouraging voluntary testing and ensuring that HIVpositive inmates get Anti-Retroviral Drugs (ARVs). However, he added, the scanty HIV budget and homosexuality stand in the way of mitigation efforts.
According to USAID, prison systems around the world are facing numerous challenges, including overcrowding, limited resources, inadequate healthcare, and violence.
In 2021, the number of people in prisons rose by 24%, reaching an estimated 10.8 million individuals. This increase puts additional strain on already stretched prison systems, making it harder to provide necessary support and services.
Drug use is a significant issue within prisons. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a UNAIDS Cosponsor, estimates that in some countries, up to half of the prison population uses or injects drugs.
Still, unsafe drug injecting practices pose a high risk of HIV and hepatitis C transmission, as prisoners often lack access to harm reduction services such as condoms, clean needles, syringes, and comprehensive drug treatment programs, especially for opioid addiction.
The prevalence of HIV among incarcerated individuals is 7.2 times higher compared to adults in the general population. According to UNAIDS, HIV prevalence among people in prisons has increased by 13% since 2017, reaching 4.3% in 2021.
While data on hepatitis C is limited, it is estimated that approximately one in four prisoners may be living with the virus.