The issue of whether to distribute condoms in prisons is a hot potato that has pitted the government against AIDS organisations.
It has pitted Vice-President Mompati Merafhe, against the executive director of the Botswana Network on Ethics Law and HIV (BONELA), Uyapo Ndadi.
This follows the statement that Merafhe made recently at the meeting of the National AIDS Council when he insisted that government will not issue condoms to prisoners. Merafhe is also the acting chairperson of the National AIDS Council.
He claimed that even prisoners themselves are against such a move. He said prisoners do not want condoms because their wives will feel that they are cheating on them whilst they are in prison.
But the fact remains that homosexuality is practised in local prisons. One prison warder tells of how they used to catch prisoners in the act. He said one prisoner was even transferred from the Gaborone Prison so that he could be separated from his lover. Those who have graduated from that ‘university of wisdom’ speak about serious love affairs taking places in prisons between inmates.
A former prisoner said when the inmates are in love, they always spoil another with gifts like cigarettes. At times, it is said, inmates even fight over a lover. They said when one inmate is interested in you, he can even offer you his food ration. The man who is interested can always be spoiling you. If you reject his offer, he would demand that you return all the presents he has spent on you. Prison inmates are also protective of their lovers, it is said.
There have also been cases in which young inmates have been sodomised.
But the department of prisons and rehabilitation considers homosexuality a crime and does not support the proposal that condoms should be distributed in prisons.
To prisons public relations officer, Senior Superintendent, Wamorena Ramolefhe, distributing condoms in prisons would be just like supplying inmates with dagga.
Ramolefhe said homosexuality is illegal in this country and there is no way they can promote a crime by distributing condoms to inmates. He said his department is a law enforcement agency and there is no way they can promote an illegal activity.
“It would be ridiculous if we as law enforcement officers condone an illegal activity. There is no way we can provide condoms unless the law is repealed,” he said.
He said the prisons department cannot be blamed because is not responsible for drafting the homosexuality law. He said they enforce laws.
Homosexuality, he said, is not only an offence outside but even in prisons. He said even outside, government is not distributing condoms for people to commit homosexuality. He insisted that the condoms are meant for heterosexuals.
Ramolefhe admitted that there have been cases of sodomy in local prisons. Such cases, he said, have been reported to the prison authorities. He, however, does not deny that some inmates commit consensual homosexuality.
However, the prisons official does not buy the view that there are some inmates who were HIV negative at the time of their incarceration, only to leave prison HIV positive. He said the prisons department does not do any mandatory HIV tests of prisoners. He wondered where the basis for claiming that prisoners were infected in prison because no tests are conducted when the inmates are admitted
However, Ndadi, who has always advocated for the issuing of condoms in prisons, does not buy the government’s view.
He dismissed the argument that distributing condoms in prison would be like promoting crime. To him, this argument does not hold water.
Ndadi said even outside prison, somebody might be issued with a condom and that person could go and commit rape.
He said the person who has been raped cannot hold government accountable for the offence because they were issuing condoms.
Ndadi does not see anything wrong with issuing inmates with condoms. In fact he feels that it could save their lives.
To him, condoms are a necessity even in prison. He said it is common knowledge that prisoners engage in sexual activity. “It is a given that if somebody engages in sexual activity, he/she needs condoms,” said the AIDS activist.
He said distributing condoms in prisons will ensure that prisoners will engage in safe sex.
Ndadi argued that if the government distributes condoms in prisons, it will not necessarily be encouraging homosexuality. He said distributing condoms in prisons will not be promoting prisoners to have sex but rather, to have safe sex. He maintained that inmates will still engage in sexual activity even if the condoms are not distributed. So it will not be like they are tempted by condoms to engage in sexual activity.
To him, it could only be worse if you are supplying inmates with Viagra or other sex enhancing pills. That way, he said, you could be rightly accused of encouraging inmates to engage in sex.
He said if the government distributes condoms, it would be a different story.
“It is not an offence to avoid contracting HIV,” he charged.
Ndadi said he has held discussions with serving prisoners and ex-inmates and they all confirmed cases of sodomy. Even prison officials have confirmed receiving reports of cases of such nature.
He said in the past, some judges were reluctant to commit young convicts to prison because they were likely to be sodomised while serving their sentences.
Ndadi mentioned Lesotho as one of the SADC countries which issues condoms to prisoners. “They do not hide behind the law. They want to be practical,” he said.
Gaborone lawyer, Tshiamo Rantao, is also in support of supplying prisoners with condoms. Rantao is also the chairperson of BONELA but was speaking in his capacity as an attorney.
“The first question is whether there is any sexual activity which is taking place in prisons,” he said. He asserted that there has been overwhelming evidence that prisoners engage in sexual activity. “Consequently I do not see the logic of denying inmates access to condoms”.
Like Ndadi, he said the argument that government would be promoting homosexuality by distributing condoms in prisons is illogical. He said even outside prison, there are people who use government-issued condoms to commit rape. He wondered whether in the realisation of this, government would stop distributing condoms because people use them for rape.
He views the decision of denying prisons condoms as a violation of their right to live. “HIV/AIDS is an issue of human rights. It is not just a disease. If you deny anybody condoms, you are violating that person’s right to life. The same thing applies to inmates.”
He said prisoners are unfairly discriminated against. “I am talking about the right to be protected against HIV/AIDS,” said Rantao.
He called for repealing of the law that criminalises homosexuality. He questioned how the government should be concerned about what two consenting adults are doing between the sheets. “The law should not become a peeping tom when people are doing their own things privately,’ he said.
“But I am not saying the society should be homosexual,” he clarified.
University of Botswana academic, Dr Sefapano Gaborone is also in support of the distribution of condoms in prisons.
He said if you deny that there is homosexuality in prisons then you would be burying your head in the sand. Gaborone defined homosexuality as something which is biological and social. “It is not just a question of choice”.
He said homosexuality happens in prisons and has always been there. Gaborone said he knows what he is talking about because he has worked on some projects at the prisons.
“I have been visiting prisons. I have seen what they do,” he said. He claimed that sexual activity does not only take place between inmates of the same gender. He spoke about a case in which a male prisoner had impregnated a female inmate in prison.He said denying prisoners condoms is just like saying you are not issuing them to students even though they are falling pregnant.
A 21 year-old NIIT student, Keolopile Moalafi is also of the view that inmates should be issued with condoms. “We are living in a modern society. We should recognise gays,” he said.
“We can’t say prisoners should not be provided for because they would also be infected.”
Moalafi said there has also been cases in which prisoners were sodomised. “They should be protected. If inmates are issued with condoms, the rate of HIV infection would be low,” he said.A Gaborone resident, Adamson Kago Adamson, said prisoners should be provided with condoms because it is an open secret that homosexuality occurs in prisons.He said inmates should be provided with condoms in order to protect them.
Adamson has seen people who were sick when they were released from prison.
“You can’t deny some of these things. Something needs to be done. There is no way you can stop homosexuality,” he said.
An elderly man, who preferred anonymity, said the question is whether there is homosexuality in prisons. If it does exist, then prisoners should be issued with condoms.
“The government will not be promoting an illegal activity. This is about the safety of other people. “Inmates who are sodomised are in danger. There is no use saying it is an illegal act,” he said.