The investigative story by FAIR member Hermine Reece ADANWENON was censored by a publication in Benin after refusal to remove a section on accountability of the president. The original French version can be found on AfricaMedia21, Bénin: Double peine de mort pour 200 prisonniers.
18/06/2012 – Cotonou
At least 200 prisoners in Benin are awaiting the death penalty. Slowly dying of HIV-AIDS, they receive no health care or support. Once behind bars, these ‘forgotten of the Republic’ lose all rights.
With tousled hair, gray-yellow teeth and chapped lips, Sètondji greets us, making an effort to smile. He is so weak he can barely move. His ribs show through his half-open shirt. He is 38 years old and the only HIV-positive prisoner who agreed to an interview.
“Nothing remains for me. I know I will die soon and there will be no-one to attend my funeral. I will be thrown into the common grave, like most prisoners after their deaths here “, he says, adding that in his soul he already died.
Arrested for complicity in a case of sheep theft, Sètondji lives in the civil prison of Abomey since 2000. After twelve years, he is still awaiting trial. “I discovered my HIV status in jail, after two years here. I got sick with a cough that lasted for months. Then prison staff tested me and told me I was carrying the AIDS virus. Hetin, another prisoner, -who is now dead-, being in the same situation as me, warned me of what would happen to me. At first I could not believe it. I hoped that I would get anti-retroviral drugs,” says Sètondji , starting to cry. After a while, he continues: “I haven’t had any support since my arrest. I think I will never see my trial because I am dying.” Exhausted, he returns to his cell, in the dormitories that were built for 40 people, but today house 320 prisoners.
At least 200 prisoners are estimated to be HIV-positive in Benin. They do not get medical treatment and live, like all prisoners, on one meal a day. There are ‘class’ differences, though. “We have a First Class “hotel” for the privileged, these have bunk beds”, explains Captain Joel Gbégan Herbert, manager of the civil prison in Cotonou. “Then, there are the ‘layers’ areas, prisoners can lie down, even if arranged like fish in a sardine box. Thirdly, there are the ‘squats’, where people sleep half upright. Lastly, sometimes, prisoners are forced to sleep in the toilets or showers because of overpopulation. “
Manager Herbert adds that he has asked the Health Department for anti retroviral drugs for prisoners several times, but “each time there is a refusal. There was a time when a generous donor gave us antiretrovirals, but that was only once”.
Politics of exclusion
Despite an HIV prevalence rate 50% higher than in the general population (2%), the prison population (3%) is forgotten in all strategies against HIV / AIDS in Benin. People who are in jail are no target group for strategies in the fight against HIV / AIDS in Benin, neither for prevention or for treatment. All national reference documents, among others the National Strategic Framework to Fight against HIV / AIDS / STI’s ( 2007-2011) and the Country Progress Report for the UNGASS, Benin 2010, ignore the inmates of the nine prisons in Benin. Yet the HIV prevalence of 3% is up to 5% in some prisons.
An official of PLWHA –People Living with HIV/Aids- confirms that there is no specific action directed at prisoners. “We cannot extend ARV treatment to prisons because there are no sites of care there”, says Dr. Akinocho, National Program Coordinator for the Fight against AIDS (NACP) based in the Ministry of Health. “The sites have to meet specific criteria.”
The National Strategic Framework has at no time considered HIV positive prisoners in its analyses or strategies, even though specific groups are mentioned and categorized for prevention activities. The Framework calls, for example, for interventions directed at “young people between 15 and 24 years, women, sex workers, the uniformed and the mobile populations.” Most of these groups are less at risk for HIV than prisoners: the prevalence among truckers and mobile populations is 1.5%. Even the averages of sex workers’ customers (3,9 %) are below the averages encountered in some prisons. But truckers and sex workers’ customers benefit from intensive prevention activities and care opportunities for STIs / HIV / AIDS.
The Country Progress Report (2010), too, omits to mention any prevention or treatment plan with regard to prisoners. The report does refer to “the failure of studies to monitor the epidemic in specific groups,” mentioning as examples men who have sex with men and intravenous drug consumers, but again ignores prison inmates. Yet these studies were all conducted to “provide a better understanding of the dynamics of distribution of new infections in the different risk groups in the country.”
That three percent of the incarcerated population of Benin is condemned to die is, besides inhumane, also in flagrant contravention of the Law on Prevention, Care and Control of HIV / AIDS in the Republic. This law states that “Any person with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or living with HIV , (…) is entitled to receive special assistance, basic care, treatment and a guarantee of confidentiality in dealing with the social and health professional. People with HIV or AIDS, who declare this status, will receive special assistance in counseling, psychosocial support, nutritional support, medical equipment, (and) medical care in accordance with standards and procedures.”
Interested audiences will remember that on August 18, 2011, at the request by the National Ombudsman, President Dr. Thomas Boni Yayi visited the civil prison of Cotonou. Confronted with the reality there, he declared himelf to be in shock and gave many instructions for improvement. Ten new prisons would be built to relieve the existing overpopulation, he promised, adding that the government would also look at the implementation of alternatives to incarceration in an effort to reduce the prison population.
However, eight months after this visit, the status quo remains. The prison in Cotonou, built in the 1960s with a capacity of 400, currently houses 2,253 inmates of which 2121 prisoners awaiting trial and only 132 sentenced. “With the arrival of President of the Republic, we dreamed of a better tomorrow. But it was a false hope because our prison conditions remained the same since “, says Joseph Bignon, a prisoner in Cotonou. He still has vivid memories of the President saying that “we must make efforts to humanize the prison environment so that the time of internment becomes true rehabilitation for those who at one time were in conflict with the law.”