Justice and Correctional Service minister Vincent Malebo says the health of inmates the world over is now as important as that of their free counterparts hence Lesotho’s pride in hosting the 3rd United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Expert Group Meeting on HIV in prisons.
The three-day meeting started on Tuesday and ends today at a local hotel and is being attended by officials from Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Malawi, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
According to Mr Malebo, some of the countries represented at the meeting have a high HIV-prevalence rate among their general population, which makes the conference all the more important.
“You will agree with me that HIV has truly been devastating to the African continent with the obvious effects being ill-health and loss of lives,” Mr Malebo said on the opening day of the conference.
“I have noted from a number of studies many population groups at high risk of contracting this virus are also at risk of criminalisation and incarceration.
“I’m also aware that countries represented here have conducted studies since 2009 aimed at establishing the HIV-prevalence among inmates.
“Many of these studies revealed a high HIV-prevalence among prisoners compared to that of the general public. I’m of the opinion that as a world engaged in programmes geared towardscurbingHIV, the prison community has been left out, creating a gap in efforts to prevent new infections.”
The minister added this showed that much moreneeded to be done to prevent prisons from becoming “reservoirs of HIV infections”.
Mr Malebo further said it was pleasing to note that this week’s meeting also focused on developing guidelinesaimed at preventing the spread of the virus in prisons.
“Please do not try to reinvent the wheel. We all know each country has its own standards adapted to WHO (World Health Organisation) guidelines. The intention, I believe, isn’t to deviate but draw from what already exists and develop documents that will talk to specific issues peculiar to prison populations.
“My advice to you isfocus on breaking the chain of infection, focus on cutting the HIV web,and avoid dwelling too much on morality and legal issues. Try your best to put public health in the forefront and above other issues that are likely to hinder progress towards the prevention of new HIV-infections, both in prisons and the general public.
“In addition, let the provision of condoms and similar commodities in correctional institutions not be seen as a way of encouraging sodomy but an important move aimed at setting our society free from HIV,” Mr Malebo said.
On her part, Acting Commissioner of Correctional Service, Matefo Makhalemele, said LCS and the entire Basotho nation regarded the meeting as “one of the most important and indispensable” as it also brought in health experts from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to brainstorm other important health issues.
“As LCS and Basotho, we are going to benefit from this meetingas it comes at an opportune time when the world is seriously collaborating bilaterally, regionally and globally to find lasting solutions to challenges and problems facing correctional services,” Ms Makhaleme said.