On the occasion of World AIDS Day, commemorated on December 1, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime presents a story on HIV interventions in prison settings across Bangladesh.

Bangladesh: Promoting HIV prevention - a critical need also in prisons

"I was dependent on drugs. I never had time for my family. I had multiple sex partners and I didn't use a condom because I did not know the importance of using it. As a result, I started suffering from various sexually transmitted infections. My addiction pushed me into debt and one day I stole from a house. I was caught and imprisoned. When I was in Khulna prison, I was suffering from STIs but I had no idea that I had a disease." 1

Low levels of education and awareness among the prison population makes inmates highly vulnerable to HIV infection and other diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  To raise awareness among prison inmates on drug abuse, HIV/AIDS and STIs, UNODC together with its project partners Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM), CARE Bangladesh and Khulna Mukti Seba Sangstha (KMSS) has been carrying out - over the last six years - a series of awareness initiatives in prison sites across Bangladesh. Plays and quiz competitions were used as intervention techniques, as these are proven tools that can help in raising awareness on critical health issues, especially among populations where literacy levels are low.

At Barishal Central Jail, prisoners were encouraged to script their own plays and present them within the prison community. In doing so, they highlighted those factors that they considered critical in their own lives, such as the impact of peer pressure and the curiosity that led to trying drugs, which then turned into addiction and sometimes also to HIV infection.  The inmates showed great interest and enthusiasm in organizing the plays, which not only provided entertainment, but was also a creative outlet in the otherwise limiting prison life.

Quiz competitions organized by the jailor and the site officer added to the infotainment presented to the prisoners. The quiz questions centered around how to prevent HIV, STIs and drug abuse.

At Dhaka Central Jail and Rajshahi Central Jail, interactive sessions were held that focused on health issues related to drugs, HIV/AIDS and STIs, leading to a lively exchange of views between inmates, prison staff and the NGO. Inmates spoke of the importance of a healthy prison environment and the need for a drug rehabilitation centre within the prison premises.  At Khulna and Jessore prisons, video presentations were used to reach out to the prison community, educating the inmates on the harmful impact of drugs on the individual, the family and the community.  Such initiatives do not only increase knowledge among prisoners, but often motivate them to become peer volunteers for the outreach work done by NGOs in prisons. After release, some prisoners were lucky and got employed by the NGO.  Dheeren* from Gazipur shares his story on how he became a peer volunteer.

"While in prison I joined Dhaka Ahsania Mission as a peer volunteer. I was educated on issues relating to HIV/AIDS, drugs, STIs, antiretroviral treatment and voluntary counseling and testing for HIV.

I would sit with inmates and talk to them about these issues. Whenever there were STI patients in prison, I would take them to the jail hospital for treatment. Sitting among these people and solving their problems made me feel like I was doing something positive and helping people. The jail authorities also started treating me like a responsible person in prison."
Prison authorities say that such innovative prison interventions have proved beneficial in many ways: they engage the prison community, they give prisoners a sense of self-value and they create a supportive network of friends. These factors combined with better awareness levels do not only contribute to reduce their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, but also help change behaviour patterns, reduce recidivism and therefore promote better social reintegration after release.

UNODC would like to express its appreciation for the work done across prison sites in Bangladesh by its project partners Dhaka Ahsania Mission, CARE Bangladesh and Khulna Mukti Seba Sangstha.

UNODC's work in prisons across Bangladesh through its regional project "Prevention of Spread of HIV among Vulnerable Groups in South Asia" is possible thanks to the financial support of SIDA-Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency .

1.    Experience shared by a 26-year-old boy, who was introduced to drugs at the age of 22.

*Name changed to protect the identity of the prisoner.