CHRISTOPHER MUMBA, Lusaka
COMMISSIONER-General of Zambia Correctional Services (ZCS) Percy Chato says the HIV epidemic has struck inmates with particular severity at a prevalence rate of 27.4 percent.
Mr Chato feels only collaborative linkages with AIDS-service provider civil society organisations and international development agencies could provide adequate mechanisms of interventions.
However, the establishment of the ZCS health directorate has scaled up the number of inmates accessing HIV counselling and testing as well as anti-retroviral therapy (ART) benefits.
ZCS deputy commissioner-general Chisela Chileshe made these remarks on Mr Chatoâ€™s behalf during a technical forum on HIV prevention in prisons held at Intercontinental Hotel in Lusaka recently.
â€œCurrently, about 90 percent of inmates know their HIV status and 65 percent are accessing ART, while cases of stigma against those on treatment do not exist due to intensified HIV sensitisation and education campaigns.â€
The technical forum was convened by Evidence for HIV Prevention in Southern (EHPSA) and brought participants from southern and East African countries.
Mr Chato is the current chairperson of the Africa HIV in Prisons Partnership Network (AHPPN). The Forum was established on funding from the United Kingdom (UK) governmentâ€™s aid agency, Department for International Development (DfID), with additional funding from Sweden and Norway, and is managed by Mott MacDonald.
It aims to stimulate discussion and sharing of expertise and lessons learnt to contribute to a robust regional body of knowledge on HIV prevention in correctional services, and also to discuss strategies to advance HIV prevention in correctional facilities, and the concept of treatment as prevention (TasP) in correctional services as part of a wider HIV prevention strategy for inmates.
EHPSA also works to address the legal, political and social barriers to HIV prevention in prison communities through political dialogue, advocacy and direct engagement with CSOs.
Prisons Care and Counselling Association (PRISCCA) has been closely working with ZCS in addressing HIV and AIDS issues in correctional facilities.
PRISCCA is using financial support from the European Union and Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA) to provide basic legal education at nine major provincial correctional facilities.
Godfrey Malembeka, the PRISCCA executive director, said the activities were being carried out on Pre-Admission and Post-Discharge Psycho-social Counselling Desks (PPPCDs) operational at each of the nine provincial correctional facilities, and are being manned by peer educator inmates, and supervised by ZCS officers from the chaplaincy and offender management units.
The facilities were established to empower prisoners to participate in the running of their own affairs.
The desks offer free legal services to pre-trial detainees and train inmates in human rights and basic legal education to enable them to reach other prisoners with human rights and basic legal education to enhance access to justice through four law firms.
The law firms are engaged by PRISCCA to provide free legal services to the indigents in prisons in an effort to reduce the population in pre-trial detention.
Legal Aid Board has also joined to provide legal support to PRISCCA and is expected to reach out to inmates in need of pro bono in provinces that are not being reached out to by the four law firms.
Dr Malembeka explained that the organisation was prompted by concerns regarding the protection and care of children who come into conflict with the law.
And in this regard, legal aid is provided through the Child Justice Forum, a consortium of public and civil society organisations that promotes and protects the rights of children who come into conflict with the law.
It has become more beneficial to deal with juvenile offenders recognised as having infringed the penal law without resorting to formal judicial proceedings. The children are referred to PRISCCA for diversion from the Lusaka subordinate courts.
Funding from the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) enabled PRISCCA to conduct an awareness campaign on corruption to sensitise people on how best to avoid graft.
PRISCCA also promotes academic education to offer early education opportunities to some circumstantial children born and growing up in correctional facilities with their incarcerated mothers.
A nursery school built by PRISCCA at Mwembeshi Open Farm Correctional Facility also offers education to few children of incarcerated male inmates, prisoners themselves and children from the surrounding villages.
The work of EHPSA, of which PRISCCA and ZCS are part, represents the welfare of inmates, generates new evidence for HIV prevention by funding innovative operational and formative research as well as critical reviews and would also support large-scale evaluations of known efficacious interventions across the region.
It also intends to strengthen linkages between researchers, policy-makers and implementers in the region to improve the skills of policy-makers to analyse and use routine research data, and address the legal, political and social barriers to HIV prevention among vulnerable groups.
This will be done through political dialogue, advocacy and direct engagement with civil society.
Further, the organisation facilitates the uptake of research by policy-makers with the aim of ensuring that evidence and data are used to inform national and regional HIV prevention policy and programming.
Key modalities include policy-influence workshops, where researchers and policy- makers are brought together to exchange ideas and build relationships.
EHPSA also uses stakeholder engagement programmes whereby researchers funded by the Regional Research and Innovation Fund (RRIF) are supported to disseminate their work and influence research uptake. Fellowship schemes are also convened where national policy-makers are directly supported to utilise routine research data.
Eastern and Southern Africa remain the global epicenter of the HIV epidemic with nine countries, including Zambia, having an adult prevalence of greater than 10 percent. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, prevention of HIV would be the best way to reduce the incidence of new infections and to limit the human and economic burden of the disease.
The author is a freelance journalist, AIDS-activist and Commonwealth professional fellow.
CHRISTOPHER MUMBA, Lusaka