It was Mxolisi Ndawo’s third night in jail when he witnessed a man being raped by another man.
He had heard scary stories about the dangerous life in prison but what he was forced to watch that freezing winter night in May 2009 would vividly forever haunt him.
“I watched helplessly a man my age, Bonga Mdluli (not his real name), being raped. He screamed like a baby and pleaded with the man to stop but he didn’t. What terrified me the most was that I knew my turn was coming,” Ndawo said.
“I do not know what eventually happened to Mdluli after I was released on bail. But I do know that he did not report the incident to the officials because the man who raped him threatened to kill him if he ratted on him and he did not go to the clinic during the nine days that I spent with him at Westville prison in Durban,” he said.
Mdluli is one of thousands of men crammed into South Africa’s overcrowded prisons who are raped by other inmates. The problem is that they leave the facility without reporting or seeking medical attention that can help them with getting drugs that could prevent sexually transmitted infections like HIV.
The World Health Organisation estimated in 2007 that HIV prevalence in SA’s prisons was about 40%.
While there are no studies that have proved that the high HIV prevalence rate in prisons across the country is a result of sexual violence that takes place there, experts are concerned about the untold damage this has on the fight against HIV-Aids.
Two years ago, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released a report that revealed a high risk of HIV transmission between prisoners and the general population because the majority of prisoners eventually leave and return to society.
It showed that most prisoners in the world were sexually active males between the ages of 19 and 35, representing a segment of the population that is at high risk of HIV infection prior to entering prison, especially in countries with generalised epidemics like SA, which has the highest number of people with HIV infection (5.7 million) in the world.
And, according to the report, sub-Saharan countries are even at higher risk of prison and general population HIV transmission because of the multiple concurrent partnerships phenomenon.
Lukas Muntingh, a project coordinator of the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, said: “Prisoners in this country are associated with high-risk behaviour that includes having multiple partners, taking drugs and alcohol, and not using condoms.
“The big question is what impact does this have on the fight against HIV-Aids once they are released back into communities?” he asked.
The Department of Correctional Services has acknowledged that sexual violence was taking place under its watch but disputed that it was a huge problem.
In June, Tom Moyane, national commissioner of Correctional Services, admitted during a media briefing with the Press Club that there was sexual violence in prisons, but said it was not a “problem”. He said: “Through our investigations we found that sex between inmates was consensual.”
Moyane’s comments contradict the findings of the Jali Commission of Inquiry report that was released in 2006, which revealed that rape was rife in SA’s prisons. The commission also made a link between sexual violence and HIV in prison when it said that “there was an extreme likelihood that prisoners who are exposed to violent unprotected sex will be infected with HIV”.
Muntingh said: “Failure by the department to prevent and address sexual violence in prison will have dire consequences for this country in the long run.
“By failing to prevent sexual violence from taking place inside prison walls, you automatically putting the whole nation at risk. We know that HIV prevalence is very high in prisons in this country and most of the time when rape occurs, condoms are not used and even if used, they break because they are not suitable for anal sex,” he said.
“The sad reality is that prisoners are not kept behind bars forever. Most of those who were raped while in incarceration leave the correctional facilities without having reported or testing for HIV,” Muntingh said.
There were 164793 men and women behind bars in this country last year. The Department of Correctional Services 2009-10 annual report said about 15000 of the 50511 awaiting-trial prisoners were released after spending at least six months behind bars.
According to Sasha Gear, who has studied sexual violence in prisons extensively and works for the South African office of Just Detention International, the awaiting-trial section has a really bad reputation for sexual violence.
“This is when people are particularly vulnerable and the living conditions are far worse than in the convicted sections. The first few days in prison are a delicate time, because that is where inmates are tested to see if they are capable of violence or if they are someone who will be forced into a feminised prison identity.
“If you are less aggressive, other inmates see you as feminised and not a real man, which in turn makes you a target of sexual abuse,” she said.
Although official statistics show that 58 prisoners reported being raped while in incarceration last year, independent surveys reveal a different picture.
One conducted by the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Centres in 2008 revealed that 8% of prisoners felt that they had been the target of unwanted sexual attention during their incarceration and about 50% felt that sexual abuse was a huge problem in prisons.
In another study conducted in 2007, by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) on male juveniles held at the Boksburg Juvenile Centre, more than 25% of those surveyed believed that most prison warders would do nothing to help a prisoner who was being forced to have sex against his will.
Department spokesperson Phumlani Ximiya admitted that their statistics were not a real reflection on the extent of the problem, because of under-reporting. He said: “We can only work with figures of reported cases.”
But ex-convict and president of the SA Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights Golden Miles Bhudu blamed the department for the “high under-reporting”.
“People are sexually violated in prisons every day and warders know about it. They know who the perpetrators are and the modus operandi they use. The biggest challenge is that nobody wants to talk about it because of the stigma and fear of being victimised twice,” Bhudu said.
“When a prisoner reports such an incident there is a strong possibility that he would be victimised again by the officials who often make a joke out of it saying “what did you do to invite it or are you gay?” instead of protecting a person who has been violated. Then the prisoner ends up being denied the right to protection, dignity and access to healthcare because he fears double victimisation,” he said.
Access to condoms and post-exposure prophylaxis that prevent HIV infection after one has been raped are freely available to prisoners but often not utilised, like in Mdluli’s case. In most cases it’s due to fear of victimisation and the stigma that hampers reporting.
Both Gear and Muntingh agree that condoms and HIV testing services are freely available in prisons across the country but say the challenge is the failure in preventing rape from happening and the stigma associated with accessing these services.
Ximiya said the department was drafting a new policy aimed at providing guidance on how to deal with the problem of under-reporting of sexual violence.
“The department views sexual violence as a serious crime. Hence we are also working on upgrading all communications (intercom and alarm) in 62 centres to make it easy for offenders to raise the alarm and report incidents as soon as possible,” he said.
By the time this policy is finalised and comes into effect thousands of men including Mdluli would have silently suffered while in the care of Correctional Services.