Living with HIV in prison
For the past 16 years Abed Thomas Naobeb, who is serving life imprisonment, has been living positively with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The soft-spoken Naobeb took time from his work schedule at the Windhoek Correctional Facility (formerly known as Windhoek Central Prison) canteen, where he is employed as a cook and cleaner, to share his story.
Naobeb who grew up in Otjimbingwe was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994 for various crimes such as rape, murder and housebreaking in the Erongo district. Back then he made headlines in the early 1990’s and was dubbed the ‘Erongo Dread’.
Six years into his prison sentence in 2000, Naobeb was informed by a social worker that he was HIV positive, news which at the time came as a shock.
“I didn’t expect to hear that. I was wondering what was happening and how I got it. Up to now I wonder how I contracted it,” he said softly.
He explained they did regular tests in hospital and thinks that’s where the social worker learnt of his HIV-positive status. “She asked where I got it (virus) from and I replied I came with it from outside but I don’t remember from whom,” said Naobeb. He suspects that he might have acquired it from his rape victims or girlfriend or perhaps a needle that he used to get a tattoo.
“In my case, I must say that I got the virus through immoral activities because I was rarely involved in love affairs and had only approached women directly without their consent or indirectly without their consent, except one girlfriend during the teenage years with whom I once again had an intimate relationship during 1993. It happened due to the lack of cognitive restructuring and I had opted for short term benefits that would be destructive in the long term,” Naobeb said of his former life.
Naobeb said the social worker advised him to visit a doctor so that he is put on food prescription and a special diet which is given to offenders who are HIV positive. The meal comprises of milk, fruit, vegetables and fish.
He explained that at time he was diagnosed with HIV, antiretroviral drugs were not available in the country and one’s health depended on a good diet. “The doctor explained how the virus would make me feel, and the drugs’ side effects. We later received some capsules to boost the immune system and they were good for the body too,” he explained.
However, Naobeb was very sick at the beginning of 2005 and was put on medication in June 2005 but stopped briefly due to side effects of the drugs. He resumed his treatment on August 22, 2005 and has been taking his ARVs ever since.
Naobeb said talk about living with HIV in prison among inmates is rare. He said inmates are reluctant to speak out because of stigma and discrimination. “But (HIV) it’s a serious issue and inmates I spoke to about my interview with the newspaper and asking them to join were worried about how people will think about them,” said Naobeb with a sense of passion.
He added: “I want to make people aware, especially people living with HIV, that we will not compromise because of stigma and discrimination … it is time to look forward with fresh hope and acknowledge that we still have time to experience life like any other healthy person until the final day. I want to strengthen and give fresh hope to the hearts of people, who have lost their loved ones as a result of HIV and AIDS.”
This reporter asked Naobeb who is in rude health what he does to take care of himself. He responded that he quit smoking after learning that he was HIV positive. “I am not involved in the sodomy issue because it will cause re-infection. I eat well. I also exercise which makes my muscles strong,” Naobeb responded. In Namibia there are about 220 000 HIV-positive people, of whom about 150 000 (68 percent) are on life-prolonging treatment.
Condoms in prison
Minister of Health Bernard Haufiku was quoted in Namibian Sun last week stating that the country must acknowledge that sex is taking place in prisons and amend the old apartheid sodomy law in order to allow correctional authorities to distribute condoms in prison.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) World AIDS Day report launched last month in Windhoek, reaching key populations with comprehensive HIV prevention services is critical to achieving the global target to reduce new infections to fewer than 500 000 by 2020.
For men who have sex with men, new infections rose by about 12 percent from 2010 to an estimated 235 000 new infections in 2015, reads a portion of the report.
When Naobeb was asked if male inmates were getting intimate with one another, Naobeb said he preferred not to respond because it does not concern him and he may offend fellow inmates.
However, he added that offenders don’t want condoms in prison because if the government distributes them it will be seen as if it is allowing homosexuality. “Those involved in this activity are in the minority. Before government distributes condoms they should speak to and do research with inmates and ask who is involved and interested in condoms at prison,” commented Naobeb.
Naobeb explained that condoms prevent virus transmission but on the other hand those inmates who are not sexually involved are worried about condoms being distributed and fear that everyone will think they are intimately involved with other men.
When asked whether inmates living with HIV are discriminated against, Naobeb responded: “We are all offenders and even if you’re not HIV positive, you have another problem so I haven’t observed any discrimination and stigmatization.”
Naobeb is waiting to go on parole soon and awaits to hear from the national release board. He said he was supposed to go out on parole in 2007 because he was very ill but residents from Erongo petitioned so that he is not released from prison.
As he looks forward to go out after 22 years, Naobeb stated that people must understand that he is not that person who committed those crimes back then. “I went through rehabilitation. I no longer have the same strength I had. I am now living with HIV and when I am released from prison people would maybe expect me to behave the way I did. But where will I get the strength from to run around and when will I get time to go get my medication?”
He ended by emphasizing that he is a changed man. And, when he is released from prison he will work as a handyman for his uncle who owns a construction company.