JOHANNESBURG As part of an ongoing
battle to secure antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for
South Africa's HIV
positive inmates, the AIDS lobby group, Treatment
Action Campaign (TAC), has gained access to a controversial
report that may shed light on whether or not treatment delays are
still costing lives in South African prisons.
The ruling handed down on Friday in the High Court in South Africa's
capital, Pretoria, condemned the Ministry of Correctional Services for
withholding what has come to be called the "MM report" on an
investigation into the death of an inmate, known only as MM, who died at
the Westville Correctional Centre in the east coast city of Durban, in August 2006. It also
instructs the ministry to hand over unedited copies of the report
Last week's ruling was just a small part of the TAC's five year battle to
secure access to treatment for inmates, said Jonathan Berger, head of
policy and research at the AIDS Law Project.
The TAC and 16 prisoners from the Westville Correctional Centre,
including MM, won a landmark case against the government more than two
years ago, when the authorities were ordered to give inmates access to
ARV treatment. MM had begun treatment less than four weeks before his
death, when his CD4 count, which measures the strength of the immune
system, was less than 100.
The TAC demanded a full investigation into MM's death, and whether or not
either the minister of correctional services or the minister of health
could be held liable. After two years of struggling to gain access to the
report, Berger said the organisation now hoped to find out whether delays
in treatment had led to MM's death, and how deaths like his could be
The Ministry of Correctional Services declined to comment pending a
review of the judgement by the department's legal team, according to
spokesman Manelisi Wolela.
Cracks in accountability
Berger said it was too early to tell what the report's findings might
mean in the fight for access to treatment in South Africa, but said the
court battle had exposed serious failings in mechanisms like the
Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), which guaranteed South
Africans access to information.
"PAIA basically allows government departments to ignore requests to hand
over documentation. The worst that happens if someone does take
departments to court is that they are ordered to hand over the
documentation, which they should have done in the first place," he
"Ordinarily, one would think that if a minister has acted reprehensibly,
you would think someone would actually have to be held accountable for
that," Berger said.
A lack of accountability in the correctional system when it comes to HIV
care and treatment has been an ongoing issue, highlighted by lobby groups
like the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (SAPOHR).
Kenny Bhoodu, head of SAPOHR's paralegal department, said access to
healthcare and a proper diet were just some of the issues that inmates
living with HIV were facing, but organisations like his often felt
powerless to change these realities. "The department is unwilling to
cooperate, and isn't willing to respect the provisions of the
Correctional Services Act it's not happening," he said.
According to the UK based International Centre for Prison
Studies, South Africa has more than 160,000 inmates crowding the
country's jails the world's seventh highest number of prisoners
with an estimated 5,000 of these on ARV treatment as of March