The World Around Us

Human Rights in Mozambican prisons

Country: Mozambique by Lisette


As I am working as Organizational Development Adviser with an organization that works in Mozambique’s prison system, I wanted to share some information about prisons in Africa and in Mozambique specifically. In all prisons worldwide, many problems need to be addressed. What is often forgotten is that these problems are real human rights issues.


Many countries do not have the resources to oversee implementation of policies and programs, and legal reform is a tricky business in any case. If and when resources are available, they are often redirected to other sectors as is often the case regarding HIV in prisons. Model prisons are then scarce and so are community services as an alternative or child-friendly courts (African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights).

Human Rights Issues

Human rights violations happen in many countries, including in parts of Africa, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, ill treatment and harassment. Detention centres, including prisons, are characterized with overcrowding, disease, malnutrition, long pre-trial detention periods etc. Globally, the prison population is growing rapidly with high incarceration rates leading to overcrowding. Overcrowding lends itself to poor supervision and safety and many other issues. Amnesty International wrote in November 2012 that thousands of people are held in Mozambican prisons despite not having been found guilty. According to a Joint Submission of 26 civil society organizations, the impunity of the policemen contributes to recurring human rights violations.

All prisoners are entitled to enjoy a good standard of physical and mental health; the loss of liberty alone is the punishment. This is captured in international law (Art. 25 of UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 12 of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), obliging states to implement legislation, policies and programs (HIV and prison in sub-Saharan Africa). In Mozambique, the Prison Organization Law was adopted in 1936 and does not comply with several human rights principles. For example, rape is often used as a disciplinary tactic and a control mechanism by prison authorities.

Mozambican prisons

The Human Rights Report from 2010 and 2011 both share examples of the harsh conditions in Mozambican prisons and detention centres, leading to several deaths. As mentioned above, these include arbitrary arrests, lengthy pre-trial detention as well as understaffed and inadequately trained judiciary.

Prison conditions include overcrowding (the most serious problem), malnutrition, substandard sanitation, poor or no health facilities, and poor state of buildings’ physical condition. Because of overcrowding, adults and juveniles as well as men and women are often not separated (except for the new juvenile prison in Boane and the women prison Nvadela in Maputo) and inmates sleep in bathrooms, on the ground, outside or in shifts. Imagine living in a place that is built for 800 prisoners, but holds 2,500 at one time. It has also happened that prisoners are kept beyond their sentence.

As mentioned earlier, overcrowding leads to poor supervision and safety, which in turn leads to an increased risk of gang activity and violence. Frustration and idleness are both often released through sex and sexual abuse, explaining partially a higher prevalence rate of HIV.

LDH, a national human rights organization in Mozambique, confirmed incidents of guards handcuffing prisoners to trees and flogging them. As a result of an LDH report a Prison Reform Group was created. However, we can conclude two years later that the implementation is lacking for a variety of factors.

The overhaul of the prison system is actually discussed in Mozambique’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper. The government wishes to expand and improve the infrastructure network of tribunals, offices, delegations, courthouses and prison. It is also calling for a reform of the correctional system including social reintegration. A reality check tells a different story: the prison system has a low priority.  As long as the international community accepts this, the system will not change.

Activistas work with prisoners to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.

HIV in prisons

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has carried out extensive research across the globe and shares that in most countries the HIV prevalence rate is higher among prisoners than in the general population. Amongst other reasons, are lack of knowledge about HIV, lack of access to protective measures, often violent conditions, overcrowding and inadequate health services.

HIV is a real issue in Mozambican prisons, ARISO’s baseline study (funded by MASC) revealed a HIV prevalence of 31,7%. Prison populations are predominantly male and most prisons are male only, including prison staff. Sex between inmates and between guards and prisoners occurs (consensual and rape) and some younger men exchange sex for food and protection of older inmates, as many have no support system outside of jail (PlusNews, 2008).

Simple preventive measures such as distribution of condoms are not taking place because men having sex with men is not acknowledged by the authorities and is perceived to be in conflict with laws which prohibit sexual relations between men.

Drug use with contaminated equipment is responsible for the largest number of new HIV-cases in prisons worldwide. Other factors that contribute to a higher prevalence rate in Mozambique’s prisons are unsterilized tattooing instruments and blood brother rituals including blood exchange.

The UNAIDS, UNODC and other organizations are working towards improvement of this situation. Yet, as the prison system is not placed within the national AIDS strategy, this can be considered an uphill battle. ARISO is not giving up on inmates and supports prison in Southern Mozambique with awareness campaigns about HIV and Aids and free testing. It also campaigns prison staff to improve the nutritional value of its meals and condom distribution. Medical assistance is, I am sad to say, outside their current ability.

To tackle this problem in a larger setting, the African HIV in Prisons Partnership Network (AHPPN) was established in 2009. After all, responding to HIV in prisons is essential for society as a whole for staff, volunteers and visitors live and work amongst prisoners, will ex-prisoners return to their communities after release and may engage in high-risk behaviours.

Female inmates

Africa has the lowest overall rate at 2,2% (Mozambique 6,3%) female prisoners in total prison population. There is only one prison for women, located at Ndlavela in Maputo, with a capacity to house about 300 prisoners; however, there are female sections in all provincial prisons which are not always properly separated.

Most female prisoners have engaged in sex work and/or drug use and, together with victims of gender-based violence, they are especially vulnerable in prisons to further sexual abuse, including rape by staff and prisoners. In other cases, it has been documented that female inmates may trade or be forced to trade sex for food, good and drugs.

Children born to mothers while in prison are allowed to stay with their mothers until they turn 5 years old. Hereafter they are either placed with family members or in a nearby church orphanage.

What can we do?

UNODC highlights the need for a comprehensive needs assessment concerning HIV and other communicable diseases (tuberculosis, Hepatitis B and C, STI’s). This would need to include specific risk factors, level of knowledge and attitudes and practices, availability of health services and monitoring/evaluation of intervention programs. It is extremely important to include prison staff, volunteers and visitors in this study for they are all in contact with the inmates as well as the general population.

HIV and prison in sub-Saharan Africa (co-produced by UNODC, UNAIDS and WHO) recommend providing access to HIV prevention measurements, care, treatment and support, awareness raising, condom distribution and education to reduce violence. It also calls for legal reforms and national HIV /AIDS guidelines to include prisoners.

Mozambique actually has a National AIDS Council since 2000, the CNCS and the Human Rights Commission since 2012. However, the prison system is not placed central nor is there a national committee or council to advocate for prisoners regarding a range of human rights violations as described above while the AHPPN focuses on HIV only.

What then has priority? In my humble opinion, there is the high-level, necessary, long and winding road of change through advocacy to reduce overcrowding and achieve legal reform of prison system in Mozambique. What can be done much faster is for NGOs to collaborate and bring HIV prevention measures, testing and health care to jail. Often family members lost their main source of income with imprisonment, guards are unpaid for months and often not educated about HIV. Guards, other staff members, volunteers, prisoners and their family members –in other words, the entire prison community– should then have access to these services.

Next to health care, it would be advantageous for all involved to create reintegration and support programs for inmates and ex-prisoners alike. For example, support circles for female inmates could offer mental, violence-related, HIV-specific and reintegration support. It is imperative that such a support circle is established together with prison staff and receives staff recognition.

No matter which action is undertaken, ex-prisoners must be included in the process and become part of any organization working within the prison system. Ex-prisoners, who may be male/female and identify as HIV-positive, are able to share valuable information and knowledge that is otherwise lost, resulting in less effective programs. Additionally, ex-prisoners understand the prison environment like none other and can built trust with inmates, a characteristic of any successful relationship.