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August 31, 2007

HIV/AIDS worry at prison, but Chief says no to condoms

Sexual activity among inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison has reduced drastically, says the prison chief, but a counselor believes that there is need for mandatory HIV testing of inmates when they are about to be released.{{more}}

When prison chief, Eric Rodriguez, took charge of the all-male lock-up seven years ago, sexual activity was rampant.

“We were dealing with eight to ten cases a week,” Rodriquez told SEARCHLIGHT.

He said, however, that the hard work of his staff, as they implemented a no tolerance policy on the illegal behaviour, along with the assistance of prisoners who were repulsed by such actions, clamped down on it.

“If it is happening, it is being done under deep cover because over the last six months, we have only had to deal with one clear cut case of it,” Rodriguez said.

This is, however, one case too many in the battle against the spread of HIV, Ministry of Health counselor Samuel Joyles believes.

Joyles, who was attached to the prison for three years, having only recently been transferred, said that he is concerned about the prisoners who may have indulged in unprotected sex in prison, putting them at serious risk of contracting HIV, then reintroduced into their old family situations, including their wives and girlfriends.

“I think prisoners should be tested for HIV before they are released. I think it is necessary,” Joyles said.

Joyles told SEARCHLIGHT that while he could not give any concrete estimate of the prevalence of homosexual behaviour in prison, he knows that it happens.

“I can’t say it is rampant, but one or two persons have admitted that they are involved. I can’t say how widespread it is,” Joyles said.

He said that it is his information that some of the inmates who get involved, do so as a form of prostitution to “get supplies, toiletries and so on.”

Rodriguez, however, told SEARCHLIGHT that his finding is that the majority of persons who are involved in homosexual acts in prison were involved before being incarcerated.

He told SEARCHLIGHT that one of the methods of control used is to transfer persons who are initiating that type of activity to cells with inmates who are known to be very aggressively poised against it.

“We have some Rasta men and other inmates here who you can’t carry that to, so we change the inmates around accordingly,” he explained.

According to the National HIV/AIDS programme report for 2006, a survey was conducted at the prison in April of 2005.

The survey sought to determine HIV prevalence among the inmates.

Out of the total of 344 persons that participated in the study, 14 were found to be HIV positive.

“The movement of prisoners in and out of the general population with and without communicable diseases such as HIV infection would be of great concern from a public health standpoint,” the report says.

So what about condom distribution in prison?

“I will rather resign first than to be involved in any such move,” says Rodriguez.

Meanwhile, head of the National AIDS Secretariat, Dr Del Hamilton, says that while the condom is a key tool in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, because homosexual sex is illegal, condoms cannot be distributed.

“It will be a conflict, because you cannot condone an illegal act,” she noted in a recent interview.

In 2006, a total of 472,014 condoms were distributed throughout St Vincent and the Grenadines by the Secretariat, more than 2004 (218,900) and 2005 (240,000) combined.

“I will never be party to any condom distribution in prison,” Joyles said on the issue.

There are close to 400 inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison.