Inmates inside Jamaica’s prisons are contracting HIV at an alarming rate according to a 2018 study. Concern is growing among experts who say that upon release from prison, ex-cons engage in sexual relationships with women who have no knowledge of their HIV status.
The study conducted by the National Family Planning Board (NFPB), which reported on 726 inmates who had been incarcerated for more than six months, from three male adult correctional facilities and one female facility, showed that the HIV prevalence rate was 6.9 percent, more than 100 percent higher than the 3.3 percent recorded in 2011.
The prison HIV prevalence rate is almost four times higher than the national average of an estimated 1.8 percent. The St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre had the highest rate, followed by Tower Street, and Fort Augusta, the women’s correctional facility relocated to South Camp Road in Kingston.
Data also show that inmates have a syphilis prevalence rate of 4.5 percent. The high HIV prevalence among male prison inmates suggests that this is the third-highest risk population after transgender women and men who have sex with men in Jamaica.
The study pointed out that almost half of the inmates were married or had been living with a partner, while 46 percent were single and had never lived with a partner before their incarceration. Some inmates in the study claimed that they contracted HIV while in prison. Director of health promotion and prevention at the National Family Planning Board (NFPB), Andrea Campbell, said the figure was cause for concern. “Anything above the general population is usually of concern to us. It is too high for inmates, and it is concerning because remember, a lot of these persons are coming back out in society.
A study was done previously where we found that persons are meeting persons within the institutions, and when they do this, they believe that this person is inside the institution and they must be clean, they can’t have anything. “Women on the outside meet men on the inside because as far as she is concerned, he’s not doing anything in there, but she doesn’t know what he was doing before he goes in there either, so this is of concern to us and is a target group that we really have to be looking at and scaling up our interventions,” said the NFPB director.
Campbell said, however, that medication was made available to inmates once they were identified as positive and wanted to go on medication. “The medication is available for them through the medical staff at the institution, and it is there for persons to access,” she told The Sunday Gleaner. “They can get their regular viral load test within the institutions, so, basically, the care is there for persons who need it.” The study also pointed out that there was low reported exposure to HIV educational sessions and condom demonstrations in the prison system.
“The effectiveness of current prevention interventions being implemented in the correctional services is questionable. Although there was high correct knowledge of HIV in some areas, approximately two-fifths did not know if HIV could be transmitted by mosquitoes and about one-third were not sure if HIV could be transmitted by sharing food,” said the study.
Based on the findings, Campbell said that the NFPB proposed to the Department of Correctional Services a series of interventions, including individual and group educational sessions at least three times per month, as well as the training of officers to reduce stigma and discrimination, and training of peer educators. Responding to the data, Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton says that he will be seeking to engage in collaborative discussions to see what can be done to address the crisis.
“Any spread of any disease, from a public health perspective, would be concerning to us, so the issue becomes, how do we assess the information as the report has done, and what are some of the things that need to be done in the interest of public health to prevent, in the first instance, and in the second instance, to treat and contain the problem?” said Tufton.