Barry Bearak, the co-bureau chief of the New York Times’s Johannesburg bureau, recently recounted his brief but harrowing imprisonment in Zimbabwe (read his account here). Bearak, who was arrested for ‘committing journalism’ on April 3, 2008, spent four nights in jail before being released and fleeing to Johannesburg.
Bearak’s bleak description of prison conditions in Zimbabwe undoubtedly resonates with those who advocate on behalf of prisoners throughout Africa. Human Rights Watch, among others, has attempted to expose the horrifying prison conditions in a number of African countries (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia). The Legal Assistance Center (LAC), an active and well-respected human rights organization in Namibia (map at left), recently conducted a fact-finding investigation concerning the care and treatment of HIV-positive inmates in the national prison system. The fact-finding delegation, of which I was a part -- along with eight students from the University of Wyoming College of Law -- discovered that the prison conditions that Bearak describes were quite similar to the conditions in Namibia. Worse yet, HIV-positive inmates often lacked access to life-saving treatment and basic medical care. (Look for the complete report on LAC’s website in late summer). A number of factors contribute to the exceptionally high HIV transmission rates within Namibia’s prison system, including consensual, unprotected anal sex and rape. As in most prisons in the U.S., prison authorities refuse to distribute condoms despite their potential to prevent HIV transmission in many cases. Sadly, as Bearak experienced in Zimbabwe, prison conditions are often abysmal; for HIV-positive inmates the conditions may, indeed, be deadly.