Government, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the AIDS Law Project (ALP) have been holding urgent talks since last year in the hope that the parties could reach an out-of-court settlement on the provision of antiretrovirals to prisoners.
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 ALP on behalf of 13 ill prisoners at Westville Prison in Durban.
The talks were initiated by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who also chairs the South African National AIDS Council with the support of both the deputy ministers of health and correctional services.
Speaking at a special session at the Durban AIDS conference, Jonathan Berger of the ALP said the parties had agreed not to lock horns in public, but that ‘Government has reneged on so many agreements that we have no choice’.
His colleague Michelle Govender painted a frustrating picture of several meetings between the ALP, the TAC and the DCS.
Berger said he had consulted with the prisoners on Tuesday and ‘if that is anything to go by, we are back in court’.
‘What I saw at the prison on Tuesday shocked me. A man was brought in a wheelchair and I didn’t recognize him. He was one of my clients, but had deteriorated so much,’ Berger revealed that two patients had already died in prison, another had died after being medically paroled while another was critically ill in the prison hospital.
‘Things are not looking good,’ Berger said.
He said the parties had consulted extensively on a national framework for a comprehensive HIV and AIDS plan for correctional centres (prisons) and that there had been agreement on the 11-page document.
However, government denied at the last minute that any agreement had been reached. At yesterday’s meeting Berger was able to produce e-mail correspondence from DCS officials which proved the contrary.
The national framework addresses among others the issues of nutrition for prisoners (dinner is served at 2pm which is problematic when ARVs need to be taken with meals at night), men having sex with men (condoms are mostly not available or prisoners have to ask DCS officials for a condom), harm reduction measures (drug use is rife in many prisons), difficulty to access HIV testing and tuberculosis management.
Phillip Mokoena of the TAC said the treatment of opportunistic and sexually transmitted infections was virtually non-existent in prisons.
Activists were also trying to engage with the DCS on its strict adherence to treatment guidelines. ‘The current guidelines state that you should start patients on ARVs when their CD4 count is below 200. So you have a scenario where a prisoner with a CD4 count of 203 is told to come back next year for a CD4 count,’ explained Berger.
Berger said the ALP and TAC wanted to settle the case. ‘We prefer a partnership and indications were that the deputy president and the two deputy ministers shared our views.
‘If not, we will go back to war if we have to.’