Improving the lives of HIV positive offenders in Southern Africa

8th October 2015
Kaday Mansaray Sibanda shared VSO's experience with improving the lives of HIV positive offenders both inside prison and on their release.

Prison conditions in the Southern Africa region are pretty dire. Over-crowded and unsanitary conditions put prisoners already living with HIV and AIDS at increased risk of illness. Risky behaviour, like sharing needles and razor blades as well as unprotected sex in prison, lead to higher than average rates of HIV transmission. On their release, most HIV positive prisoners receive little or no support due to stigma and discrimination in their own communities.

VSO has worked to address this problem in targeted prisons in South Africa since 2000. In 2014, we expanded this work to Malawi. In January this year we were awarded a Big Lottery (UK) grant which will enable us to do similar work in Zimbabwe: improving the lives of HIV positive offenders both inside prison and on their release.

We are in a strong position to learn from these 15 years of experience working on HIV in prisons, so we don’t repeat mistakes and build on the very best practice we have learned.

Building robust relationships

Strong relationships with external agencies are always important, but they are particularly pertinent when working in prisons.

In South Africa we built a good relationship with the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) which was essential for gaining physical access to prisons. Security considerations invariably take priority and any organisation seeking to improve the conditions for prisoners has to establish strong and trusting relationships with prison authorities.

In Zimbabwe, efforts are currently underway to build trust with Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) at every level of planning. We are making sure that the seconded Officers will brief their superiors on the progress and plans at every stage of the project.

Winning the trust of inmates is also essential. Our work in Zimbabwe is informed by something called ‘situational analyses’ and ‘beneficiary consultations’ - essentially making sure that prisoners’ priorities are at the centre of our work. We have learnt that prisoners will not open up if we do not earn their trust.

Advocating for change at the national level

We have learnt that high level regional advocacy at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) level is necessary, but is not in itself enough to result in changes at the service delivery level. Such regional advocacy needs to be coupled with in-country advocacy with the relevant ministries and authorities. In Zimbabwe, efforts will be channelled towards soft advocacy with the prisons services.

Coordinating with other agencies

A key strength of VSO’s work in South Africa has been our coordination with the Southern African Media and Gender Institute (SAMGI) and the TB/HIV Care Association, which lets us provide HIV voluntary counselling and testing services to female inmates.

We also coordinated efforts with the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) to provide legal advice to inmates. Based on what we learnt from this, we have put in place mechanisms to co-operate with the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACPO) and Prison Fellowship Zimbabwe (PFZ) to offer a continuum of care for inmates.

Using volunteers to build capacity

Our work in South Africa’s prisons involved many national volunteers and four international volunteers from Ireland, Kenya and the Philippines. Two VSO volunteers were placed with SAMGI to build the organisation’s capacity to deliver their work in South African prisons (between 2003 and 2008). The volunteers helped develop computer skills courses for prisoners and strengthened SAMGI’s monitoring and evaluation systems.

In Zimbabwe, VSO will be recruiting two international volunteers - one focusing on Monitoring and Evaluation and the other on Health Programme Management to build the capacity of the two implementing partners.

We are really excited about this project because prisoners belong to some of the most marginalised groups in Southern Africa. Any work to improve the lives of prisoners will only be effective if they are in good health. The project will also improve prisoners’ chances of reintegration back into their communities. I personally am very positive that this project will make a lot of difference to the lives of prisoners and their families as well as prison officials in the targeted prisons.