Last year, Judge Thumba Pillay ordered the government to return to court on March 15 to present its plan on how it aimed to extend ARV treatment to all prisoners who needed it. This followed an application by the AIDS Law Project on behalf of 13 ill prisoners at Westville Prison in Durbam.


According to Deputy Minister of Health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the talks were initiated by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who also chairs the South African National AIDS Council.        


‘€œWe’€™ve been instructed by the Deputy President to start negotiations with people that are representing the inmates at Westville Prison,’€ confirmed Madlala-Routledge.


‘€œWe’€™re trying very hard to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. But most preferably, to resolve it out-of-court because we think that way we’€™ll cut the length it takes for the courts to make decisions on these matters.’€


Adila Hassim, a lawyer with the AIDS Law Project, concurred that her organisation hoped the matter would be resolved soon and without having to resort to the courts.


‘€œIt’€™s very heartening to see that the Ministry of Health is responding positively to the case and to the issue of the roll-out of ARVs in prison,’€ said Hassim.


‘€œWe’€™re hoping that this means that the talks that we are going to be engaging in with the government in the next few days are going to be productive and it’€™s going to result in the resolution of the matter.’€


Madlala-Routledge said she was happy that the parties were sitting and talking.


‘€œBut the thing that we all need to recognise is that as we sit and talk there are people at Westville Prison and other correctional centres who are dying prematurely because we have not reached them on time,’€ she said.


Although Westville Prison was accredited to provide ARVs last September, very few other prisons have accreditation and this remains one of the obstacles to the efficient roll-out of treatment in the prison community.  


Madlala-Routledge said shortages of staff working in prisons was one of the barriers, as this affected both the ability of prisons to provide effective healthcare and adequate security while transporting prisoners to outside health facilities.


On June 22 last year, Judge Pillay, had ruled that the government had to remove any obstacles to prisoners accessing ARV treatment at Westville Prison, to ensure that all prisoners who needed ARVs were immediately assessed for treatment, and to state exactly what steps it planned to take to extend treatment to all prisoners in an affidavit filed with the Court.


Judge Pillay also issued an interim execution order last July, compelling Westville Prison to provide ARV treatment to prisoners. Government appealed.


But two months later, Judge Chris Nicholson also ruled that the government must start providing ARV treatment to prisoners while it worked on the instruction by Judge Pillay to file plans with the court on how it will provide ARVs in prison.


Judge Pillay’€™s original order allowed for a court hearing to consider  the reasonableness of the government’€™s plan ‘€“ and this was set for 15 March.

A task team has been set up to address barriers to ARV treatment, consisting of state lawyers, the Department of Correctional Services and Health and the AIDS Law Project.


Government figures show that nine prisoners per month have died of AIDS-related illnesses since 2005.