SOUTH AFRICA: Court victory for HIV positive inmates
South Africa has more than 160,000 inmates crowding the country's jails
JOHANNESBURG, 2 February 2009 (IRIN) - As part of an ongoing battle to secure antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for South Africa's HIV-positive inmates, the AIDS lobby group, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), has gained access to a controversial report that may shed light on whether or not treatment delays are still costing lives in South African prisons.
The ruling handed down on Friday in the High Court in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, condemned the Ministry of Correctional Services for withholding what has come to be called the "MM report" on an investigation into the death of an inmate, known only as MM, who died at the Westville Correctional Centre in the east-coast city of Durban, in August 2006. It also instructs the ministry to hand over unedited copies of the report to TAC.
Last week's ruling was just a small part of the TAC's five-year battle to secure access to treatment for inmates, said Jonathan Berger, head of policy and research at the AIDS Law Project.
The TAC and 16 prisoners from the Westville Correctional Centre, including MM, won a landmark case against the government more than two years ago, when the authorities were ordered to give inmates access to ARV treatment. MM had begun treatment less than four weeks before his death, when his CD4 count, which measures the strength of the immune system, was less than 100.
The TAC demanded a full investigation into MM's death, and whether or not either the minister of correctional services or the minister of health could be held liable. After two years of struggling to gain access to the report, Berger said the organisation now hoped to find out whether delays in treatment had led to MM's death, and how deaths like his could be prevented.
The Ministry of Correctional Services declined to comment pending a review of the judgement by the department's legal team, according to spokesman Manelisi Wolela.
Cracks in accountability
Berger said it was too early to tell what the report's findings might mean in the fight for access to treatment in South Africa, but said the court battle had exposed serious failings in mechanisms like the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), which guaranteed South Africans access to information.
"PAIA basically allows government departments to ignore requests to hand over documentation. The worst that happens if someone does take departments to court is that they are ordered to hand over the documentation, which they should have done in the first place," he commented.
"Ordinarily, one would think that if a minister has acted reprehensibly, you would think someone would actually have to be held accountable for that," Berger said.
A lack of accountability in the correctional system when it comes to HIV care and treatment has been an ongoing issue, highlighted by lobby groups like the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (SAPOHR).
Kenny Bhoodu, head of SAPOHR's paralegal department, said access to healthcare and a proper diet were just some of the issues that inmates living with HIV were facing, but organisations like his often felt powerless to change these realities. "The department is unwilling to cooperate, and isn't willing to respect the provisions of the Correctional Services Act - it's not happening," he said.
According to the UK-based International Centre for Prison Studies, South Africa has more than 160,000 inmates crowding the country's jails - the world's seventh highest number of prisoners - with an estimated 5,000 of these on ARV treatment as of March 2008.