Orville Taylor | DCS, HIV, NIDS and other acronyms
If you are going to be in a fencing match, even if you are forced, you have to wear protective gear. So if you are fenced in and doing sword fight, and uncovered, you likely will pay with your life.
Outgoing Commissioner of Corrections Ina Hunter was caught between two rocks and a hard place when the recent report revealed that the spread of HIV among the prison population was increasing. At present, the prevalence among our incarcerated is 6.9 per cent, up from 3.3 per cent in 2011.
Of course, the data must be understood against the background that the virus does take some time to incubate. Therefore, some of those who are now seropositive might simply be showing the older infection with this retrovirus. Second, the population is also a constantly replenishing one. Thus, new inmates already carrying the virus could very well be pushing the figure up.
Nevertheless, reprising the concern of two decades ago, the advocacy has returned for condoms to be made available to male prisoners.
It almost took the scalp of then Commissioner Colonel John Prescod, who, in the face of the imposing evidence that male inmates were having sexual relations, could not simply turn his back on the growing crisis.
There was a massive riot and dozens of inmates were killed or maimed as the anti-gay majority tried to purge itself of the sexual minority which was giving them a ‘bad name’. True, it was a dark chapter in the discourse regarding homophobia, and doubtless, in the correct sense of the word, there was fear of ‘contamination’ by being labelled as the indecent other. However, also in a population where many erstwhile ‘straight’ males are bullied into subjection by gay inmates, there is enough justified fear to go around in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The problem for Prescod then, as it was for Hunter now, is that there is a constitutional, public health and legal dilemma.
In this country, anal sex is prohibited by law. Inasmuch as it is a stupid statute and it potentially wastes police and judicial resources, it is still binding. Indeed, this law is an ass, and thankfully, the cops generally do not try to mount or be dragged by it. However, if the good commish even wants to act, she would be ironically aiding and abetting the commission of an illegal act.
Beyond that, sexual relations in prisons are explicitly forbidden. It is called the penal system for good reasons. As far as I know, the only sex that is permitted in our correctional facilities is ‘intracourse’ where an individual can be as selfish as his/her imagination allows, as long as it does not involve another person.
To facilitate the sexual pleasure of one set of prisoners over others could very well be seen as discriminatory because there is only heterosexual conjugal sex in the minds of the prisoners. Thus, rather than creating equity or equality under the Constitution, in my considered non-lawyer position, it would be bending over backwards to a minority, privileging them over the majority.
More discriminatory is the fact that, as with the overall fight for gay rights and protection, the focus is on male sexuality, with little regard for the status of women.
Globally, females in prisons have higher HIV rates than men. In sub-Saharan Africa, the rate among women is 13.1 per cent, while it is 7.1 for men.
Significantly, our figures are not particularly high compared to the rest of the world. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia taken as a bloc, the rate for women is three times that of men. Females are at 22.1 per cent, with male prisoners at 8.5 per cent.
I focused on these populations because, like Jamaica, in these countries, the majority of the prison inmates are poor and already socially disenfranchised.
I am yet to see the data regarding female-female transmission of HIV in Jamaica or even globally. A major conceptual problem is that the research instruments do not even bother to ask if the woman is a female who has sex with females (FSF), because somewhere in the minds of the researchers, advocates, and policymakers, it is low risk.
It is a classic case of ‘don’t ask and you won’t know’. I always found it strange when male gay advocates attempt to explain that lesbians are at lower risks, when they cannot fully visualise the volume of fluid which passes, despite the concentration. Truthfully, we do not know what percentage of our female gay population is HIV-positive; and we should.
Yet, like the prison authorities, I want to warn the high-risk groups of their self-harmful behaviour but that must not only include male-male sexual activities. In fact, my constant argument is that I totally agree that even telling gay males to use condoms violates the law (of God and man). However, it is exactly the same message to commercial sex workers, who we stigmatise as ‘prostitutes’, and the same legal burden of aiding and abetting. In simple words, we need to pay more attention to (gay) females at risk and not make them doubly prejudiced.
HAPPY WITH RULING
Finally, I am happy that the Supreme Court has ruled the National Identification System (NIDS) as unconstitutional. True, I accept that Government must have a centralised dataset of its citizens.
However, this is not about the dishonesty of an administration which wishes to keep private certain contracts involving government money, campaigning financing, and the value of their domiciles.
Rather, I am totally opposed to any government or any agency having access to my DNA. The HIV microbe bonds with one’s DNA even when there are no symptoms. Therefore, as blood and DNA testing improves, it is a short walk for the Government to know who in the population has HIV.
So, if we think that the issue of HIV is simply about anal sex in prisons, let this information give the discourse a boost.
- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.