Thank you Mr. Chair,
The NGO Delegation appreciates the focus on HIV in prisons and closed settings in the UNAIDS Strategy 2016-2021.
We agree with the assertion that HIV prevalence among prisoners may be up to 50 times higher than in the general population. We understand that many of the activities, which put people at risk of contracting HIV, are highly stigmatized in society and in many cases are considered ‘illegal’.
Experience throughout the history of humankind, has taught us the vital lesson that the distance between freedom and prison is so minute that prison walls, in reality, are not as impregnable as they seem. The late Nelson Mandela captured it succinctly when he said: “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” This phenomenon is not peculiar to South Africa as Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, also graduated from prison to the Presidential Villa. Examples of others who passed through prison before leading their countries include Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan; and Mahatma Gandhi who was imprisoned numerous times by the British, both in South Africa and India. You never can tell: my sister Simran may be the President of Nepal tomorrow.
This is why we recall Nelson Mandela’s words that: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
We unequivocally agree that a public health approach and alternatives to incarceration could reduce the number of prisoners acquiring HIV, TB, HCV co-infections by relieving overcrowding and ensuring access to harm reduction, prevention, counselling, adequate nutrition and other health services.
We know that racism and other forms of marginalization lead to discrimination and disproportionate incarceration and detention. For example, in Canada, Indigenous people comprise 3.8% of the Canadian population, but now account for 23.2% of the total inmate population.
Scarce resources are better devoted to health interventions such as harm reduction, addictions counselling, treatment and support – including programmes for children and people in pre-trial or temporary detention -rather than punitive responses that drive vulnerable populations into hiding, thereby pushing them further into harm’s way.
We recognize Portugal for decriminalization of drug use. We applaud South Africa for providing condoms in prisons, Iran for Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) in prisons and Moldova for OST and Needle and Syringe Programs (NSP) in prisons. However, we need to do more. We need to vastly improve availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality of HIV prevention, treatment and care services in prisons and closed settings. African countries need to go beyond advocating for more funding. We need to recognize the need to focus on funding for OST, MMT, NSP, condoms provision and other related services. The UNODC needs to work with communities in Africa to establish policies and implement programs targeting people in prisons and closed settings. Most importantly, we should call for decriminalization of key populations. This is not just an issue of moral justice; this is an issue of human dignity. The Speaker from Moldova referred to prisons as places where lives are preserved. The reality is that lives are being destroyed and worsened in many prisons worldwide.
As a parting word, I wish to quote Nelson Mandela again. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
We will continue to be behind our targets so long as we continue to leave a substantial number of our people behind….. our people in the prisons and closed settings. Therefore, if we who are outside the prison walls want to continue to be truly free, then we must treat our people in prison with compassion, dignity and care.