Weak link: How gayism in prisons sabotages war on HIV


HIV negative prisoners become positive within months in jail

Wednesday March 18 2020

For many years, Kenyan prisoners have asked to be granted conjugal visits without success.

Unfortunately, the result has been rampant homosexuality in men prisons and with this, the spread of HIV. In fact, so bad is the situation that fighting over male ‘spouses’ has been blamed for prison fights.

However, attempts to open a conversation on the issue has been met with resistance by prison authorities. A condom is considered contraband in prisons and when it is successfully sneaked in, a packet of three — which usually retails at Sh40 outside — goes for Sh200.

While presenting their views in July 23, 2002 to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, chaired by Prof Yash Pal Ghai, prisoners at Nairobi Remand and Allocation Prison in Industrial Area, requested to have the law recognise their conjugal rights among other things.

While on a familiarisation tour of the prison on February 12, 2003, the prisoners told then Vice President Moody Awori that allowing couples to have sex in secluded areas of prison would help arrest the runaway HIV and Aids in prisons. They also blamed homosexuality on the lack of conjugal visits.

Prisoners said their wives have left them due to sexual starvation.


Inmates at Shimo La Tewa Prison in Mombasa County made similar requests on September 2013, but Coordination Principal Secretary Josepheta Mukobe said conjugal rights could not be granted. “Some of your demands, like conjugal visits, require privacy. This can only be possible if the prisons are expanded,” the PS told the inmates during a tour of the prison.

However, a more definite response regarding the subject came from former Commissioner of Prisons, Mr Isaiah Osugo, while addressing journalists in November 2010 in Mombasa. Although the Prisons Department had been under pressure from the civil society to allow condoms in prisons to prevent HIV and Aids, he said, they would not be introduced. Prisons, he said, were rehabilitation centres. “Sex is not a basic right for prisoners,” he said.

Prisoners were designated as a “most-at-risk” population by the government in 2009, following a study by the National Aids Control Council (Nacc), UNAids and the World Bank. The study found that inmates and men who have sex with men accounted for 15 per cent of the country’s new HIV infections.

“They don’t want to give condoms because nobody wants to admit there is homosexuality. The authorities fear that allowing condoms will be a way of endorsing the vice,” said HIV-positive inmate 1 during an interview.

According to papers filed in a case pending before a court, prison authorities seemed to acknowledge homosexuality was a problem and expressed their frustrations in trying to stop the vice.

In the case, the officer-in-charge, Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, talked of an inmate who had frustrated them. Two inmates, initially held at Kamiti main, were separated on security grounds. The younger inmate was transferred to Naivasha, “because they were practising homosexuality. The younger inmate was being sexually exploited by the older inmate”.


Further, said the officer, the older inmate has been using his lawyer to file court petitions to ensure, both he and the younger inmate “remain at Kamiti prison even when they don’t share any legal matters”. “The first petitioner (older inmate) refused to appear in court purportedly because the second petitioner (younger inmate) was not transferred back to Kamiti main from Naivasha,” said the officer. “It is interesting that a petition was filed by the first petitioner using his lawyer and he included the second petitioner with whom they don’t have anything in common, not even being in the same station or sharing a case.”

When convicts are taken to prison for the first time, they are tested for HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis.

Inmate 2 told HealthyNation he tested negative when he went to prison and after two years, tested positive.

His prison horrors began when he was taken to Kamiti. Men fought over him. “In jail, it’s husbands and wives, not boyfriends, lovers or partners. The terms are used openly, without shame,” explained the inmate.

Young inmates find themselves in a vulnerable position. The harsh prison life is said to drive them into homosexuality. Better food, better beddings, a phone to call home or any other thing that would make their stay comfortable is dangled before them.

The newcomer may also be in a state of denial, confusion, or lonely and this makes them easy prey.

In prison, no comfort is too little and something as simple as a mattress is used to lure inmates into homosexuality. Older inmates often have two mattresses given to them by one who has been transferred or released. “The younger inmate gets used to the good life and is at home with the new friend,” said inmate 3, who is against gayism in prison.

After a few days, the younger inmate begins opening up to his newfound, “guardian”, who promises solutions. “The older inmate will even lie he knows several lawyers who can file an appeal and secure the release of the younger inmate,” added inmate 3.


Upon winning his confidence, the older inmate will gradually start to pull away, and will make it appear like a transfer to another prison is imminent and the younger inmate may have to endure hardships. The younger inmate may also be accused of misbehaving, and threatened that the privileges will be withdrawn. Should he want to continue enjoying the privileges he has to meet the terms of the older inmate.

The comfort comes at a cost and the cost is sex. For fear of the unknown, the younger inmate gives in to the demand.

The older inmate takes the newcomer to a block in the prison, where his friends sleep. “The prisoners in the new cell know what is happening and after a short while, they walk out, leaving the two in the cell. They lock the door and stay guard should the warden go by,” said inmate 3, adding that the encounter has been christened “breaking virginity” or “flying to the outside world”.

The younger inmate is assured the act will remain a secret and because he is getting everything he wanted, the cycle continues until there is no longer need to hide it. Word goes round and the younger inmate is sought by gay men, who also offer him ‘gifts’ in exchange of sexual favours until he discovers he is HIV positive.

Inmate 4, who is also among those advocating prison free of homosexuality, explained that once it became obvious the younger inmate had several sexual partners, the older inmate would gradually lose interest in him and court a newcomer. “When they are transferred to other prisons, the HIV continues to spread among prisoners,” said inmate 4.


Efforts by inmates to campaign against homosexuality in the prisons usually flop because they have “no goodies to offer” the recruits to make them turn down the advances. “The young inmates will fall into the trap because of greed,” said inmate 4, who adds that sometimes the advocates are beaten up to silence them.

Alphonse Simon, the Kenya Prisons Aids Control Unit coordinator at Kamiti, acknowledged that homosexuality was happening within the prison’s walls. “These things happen daily, although they hide it. Should any of them be caught, they will be punished and they are aware of it,” he told the HealthyNation.

Nacc, which is in charge of the response to HIV and Aids in the country, has no programme in prison.

However, Simon said their unit had a team of prisoners who had since reformed and were holding barazas to give talks on HIV and campaign against gayism in the prison.

Kenyan prisons have been known to have the most cruel life and homosexuality is not the only way HIV is spread. Cases of rape are rife. Due to this, Simon said, the inmates were also given post-exposure prophylaxis after rape. “These are not allowed, but we just stock the drugs since anything can happen,” he said.

At Kamiti sub-county hospital, he said, HIV drugs were available for any inmate in need of treatment. “There is a lot that happens inside the prison as far as interventions on HIV and Aids are concerned. We have comprehensive care clinics and the inmates are also given ARVs,” he said.


A survey by Resources Oriented Development Initiative Kenya, which runs programmes to support prisoners with HIV, interviewed 142 inmates in Kenyan prisons and found that 56 per cent of them reported being HIV positive, with men reporting a higher prevalence than women.

Different organisations have been giving inmates talks on abstinence and safe sex. “I don’t consider these talks serious. How do you tell us to abstain and practise safe sex yet having condoms in prison is a taboo?” asked inmate 2.

According to a source from the Health ministry, who did not want to be named for fear of victimisation, prisons are designed to confine and punish criminals. “Prisoners cannot start dictating that they want to be given conjugal rights and asking for condoms. When we agree with such cheap talk, we will be encouraging immorality,” said the source.

However, despite the governments’ firm position of not supplying condoms to prisoners, HIV has placed an enormous fiscal burden on prisons.

* The identity of the inmates talked to are not being revealed for security reasons, and to protect those who are HIV positive.