Fifteen Years of HIV Prevention in Kyrgyz Prisons
Author: Olga Ochneva, Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is a leading country in the Central Asia in terms of implementation of harm reduction and HIV prevention programs in the correctional settings. Syringe exchange programs have been available in prisons since 2002, and today over one thousand five hundred people receive clean injecting equipment in all twelve correctional facilities. Atlantis rehab centers have been gradually introduced since 2004 for those convicts who made a decision to quit drugs. Currently, eight such centers are functioning, with the ones who have almost succeeded in stopping with drugs continuing treatment in a separate, so-called “clean compound.” In ten institutions, including two pre-trial detention centers and one penal settlement, people have access to the methadone substitution therapy. Besides, governmental agencies, together with donors and civil society organizations, conduct awareness-raising activities, diagnostics and treatment of HIV infection, tuberculosis, and provide social support for ex-prisoners. Such programs have been implemented for 15 years, and local experts share their best practices.
Correctional settings form adherence
Roman had been enrolled into the opioid substitution treatment (OST) program before he got into prison, but he was still using heroin. Due to drugs related crime, he had to go to jail, where at first his HIV test showed a negative result. However, in a while, the virus has shown itself. Now Roman is free. He works in the Ranar Charitable Foundation offering people released from prisons the same kind of support that he got back when he walked out of the jail: accompanies them to the sites providing OST services, antiretroviral therapy (ART), makes contact with the law enforcement agencies, and provides support with employment seeking and accommodation as well as with the restoration of personal documents, if needed.
“For three years in prison, I was sharing needles with everyone and had no idea that I had HIV till I developed tuberculosis and pleuritis,” Roman says. “When I was in prison, I did not even think about what I was going to do after the release. I thought I was just living out my days. When I got out, my state was really bad: I was taking high doses of methadone and was not taking any ARV drugs. Then my friends showed me some sober guys, whom I knew back in prison. Before that, I could not even imagine that one can quit methadone.”
Today, convicts with HIV amount to 5% of all the people living with HIV (PLWH) in the country, whereas in 2010 this share was 13.7. There has been access to ART in the correctional settings since 2005; and currently, 305 out of 357 officially registered PLWH serving their sentences receive the treatment.
In prison, Roman received ARV drugs but did not take them. He admitted that he took the pills only because they were given together with motivational food packages distributed in Kyrgyzstan to develop an adherence to treatment. Next year, those who receive the treatment for over one year will no longer be getting such packages because their adherence has already been formed.
“In correctional settings, there is a favorable environment where an outstanding program to form adherence may be implemented as the patients are always in plain sight,” Natalia Shumskaya, AFEW Chairperson in the Kyrgyz Republic says. “The quality of treatment and care of people living with HIV, unfortunately, leaves much to be desired. There is a deficit of qualified health professionals and a lack of proper attention to the patient. It is important to make sure that the officers of the department for the execution of sentences see additional benefits for this work. Currently, donor organizations provide funding for additional support, but starting from next year there will be no funds to cover those needs. In this context, it is rather difficult to ensure quality performance of all the guidelines on implementation of the programs aimed at harm reduction, HIV prevention, diagnostics, and treatment, which have been developed over the years.”
How it works “from the inside”
On the average, in penal colonies 85 prisoners attempt to overcome their drug dependence in the Atlantis rehab centers every year. About half of them successfully complete the program and are transferred to the Rehabilitation and Social Adaptation Center (RSAC) or the “clean compound” in the colony No. 31. In this compound, the convicts who decided to quit drugs get additional professional training and are prepared for the release.
OST in closed settings was introduced in 2008, and today such treatment is provided to 479 patients. According to ex-convicts, the methadone substitution treatment program in the places of confinement has been to a great extent discredited by the patients who take additional illegal substances. Access to services varies depending on the type of institution.
“When I found myself in a pre-trial detention center, I got no access to methadone,” tells Roman. “It was not available there, and local staff members only organize transportation to the OST sites if there are at least 4-5 people who take part in the OST program. To get ART, it was also necessary to go outside of the center territory. Sometimes, people have to wait for a court decision for several years there and for all this period of time they may have no access to medications. In a prison, once a day they take you to a sanitary unit, where you get your methadone. There are also ARVs and clean syringes available. You must always give back the used equipment, but if there is a search in the ward, the guards take away all the syringes and needles. In colonies, it is much easier to get all those services.”
The “Kyrgyz miracle”
Madina Tokombayeva, whose Association “Harm Reduction Network” (AHRN) has been providing support to convicts for fifteen years, says that the existence of such programs in the country may already be called a miracle.
“We started our activities in correctional settings with self-help groups for PLWH back in 2002 through the first community organization of people who use drugs uniting PLWH and ex-convicts,” tells Madina. “We saw that after the release people need support, so at our own initiative we started helping them after they got out. We were speaking about all the problems existing in prisons, and thus we found people and donors who were ready to support our ideas. At that time, AFEW Kyrgyzstan supported the establishment of the first social bureau in colony No. 47, activities of the Ranar Charitable Foundation aimed at ex-convicts and helped to purchase a house for them, which is still functioning with the support of AFEW Kyrgyzstan. Later, the CARHAP project disseminated social bureaus and support services in all the correctional facilities.”
Currently, harm reduction programs in prisons are financed by the Global Fund and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). AFEW Kyrgyzstan strives to build the capacity of staff members of the State Department for the Execution of Sentences and, together with the AHRN, provides HIV prevention and social support services to ex-convicts with the support of the USAID.
“We conduct regular monitoring of the harm reduction programs, in particular in correctional settings. I have a feeling that they are still in the bud, but they have got a chance,” says Madina Tokombayeva. “We have to make the adopted laws and the approved guidelines work in these three years, while we still have the donor funding. We need to consult with our clients and, together with the governmental agencies, organizations working in the area of HIV and communities develop a totally new approach to the implementation of such programs so that their quality is really high by the moment when we face the transition to the state funding. They must not be closed under any circumstances or otherwise, we will go back to the parlous times when prisons were the driver in the spread of HIV.”