Horror of rape in East African prisons
Homosexual rape is rife in prisons in Kenya and Zanzibar.

For the first time, victims talk about their experiences in a shocking indictment of neglect and violence.

It is a nightmare for anyone, anywhere, to find themselves in a police car on their way to prison.

But many think that in jail there is protection around the clock, not knowing that prison may be more dangerous than the life they left behind.

One man told me he was raped within hours of the gates closing behind him at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, where he was jailed for five years for robbery.

"They were fighting over me, they were fighting over who should get me first," he said.

"I just had to wait until the fight was won and then be raped by the winners."

Commonplace story

Another young man, too ashamed to want his name revealed, was jailed for three years for the theft of a bicycle.

It was his first offence and within hours he had been gang raped.

"They took me to a cell - they were huge people and I was very little and young," he said.

"They invited me to share their supper. I agreed, thinking they were good people. I did not know they had put sleeping pills in the food.

"After supper, I went into a very deep sleep. I was unconscious. That's what they wanted - that's when they raped me."

I found this kind of story to be commonplace.

Male rape happens in many prisons around the world. What makes it different in East Africa is that attitudes to homosexuality in society generally mean that this terrible problem is never acknowledged, never spoken about, even by the victims.

It is denied by officials - and by society at large.

'Sexual needs'

The deputy officer in charge of Kamiti Prison, Pite Nguguna, told me there was no abuse at all there.

"We don't have rape in prisons," he said.

"We have never had a rape case reported while prisoners are serving their jail terms.

"Maybe there was an encounter with somebody, maybe, who was homosexual.

"But homosexuality itself is a very secretive kind of activity, so for the authorities it's not known to us."

So, plenty of proof on one side, and plenty of denial on the other.

Given that most African cultures do not entertain homosexuality, what else encourages rape in these African male prisons?

"Prisoners are just human beings," said Emmanuel Wetangula, a lawyer in one of Kenya's leading law firms.

"They do have sexual needs which they have to attend to. They do not get conjugal visits from their wives or girlfriends."


Mr Wetangula knows the structure of prisons facilities in Kenya, and he is of the opinion that congestion in the prisons might be one of the reasons for the increase of rape in male prisons - since the warders cannot get proper access to all the cells in the prison.

He explained that the biggest problem is that prison conditions have various categories and cartels.

So when a new prisoner arrives, he is actually seen to be different from the rest of the prisoners - and deemed "fresh."

"It commonly happens among the newcomers, the new entrants into prison," he added.

I managed to get hold of Chena, who is a prison leader in a Zanzibar prison, and who has been in and out of jail several times for robbery.


He told me that there were a number of reasons why rape goes on.

"Sometimes it might be lust - plain sexual gratification," he said.

"Sometimes the person wants to show power, to have power over another prisoner. Sometimes by raping a fellow prisoner, that person can make even the warders fear them."

He added that this was the case with himself - although he denies he has actually been a rapist himself.

"They fear me," he said.

"I might look small to you, but I am strong - very strong. I fear nobody.

"I can rape, I can do whatever I want to anybody, and no-one will dare question me.

"That is power."

Gendered roles and vulnerability of male inmates to forced sex

Sasha Gear

In South African prisons, different kinds of sexual interactions and relationships take place between men. The majority of these are abusive, exploitative, and involve rape and various degrees of coercion. Newcomers to prison are especially vulnerable because they are unfamiliar with the "rules" of inmate culture and are easily manipulated. Seasoned inmates regard them as sources of material goods including sex, and as potential gang members. Often, a newcomer accepts goods and services such as protection, food or cigarettes from another inmate without realizing that sex will be expected from him as payment for the unknowingly created "debt". Rape frequently follows as a consequence.

A qualitative study by the South African Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) showed that the trickery frequently used to subordinate inmates relies on the exchange value that is attributed to sex.1 Because sex is embedded in the prison economy, those who are poor tend to be amongst the more vulnerable. Prisoners who do not get visitors (an important source of commodities and money) are often economically needy. As one respondent put it, "money makes prison go round" and prisoners' basic rights – food rations, blankets, beds – become embroiled in this economy.

The risks of rape are higher among those who are physically weak, not prepared to use violence or who are perceived to have committed a "sissy crime" (often those that do not involve violence or weapons). Having "good looks" also increases the likelihood of being targeted. However, there are no absolute prerequisites for sexual violation. Both poverty and fear, for example, can be created by fellow inmates to ensure anyone's compliance.

Gendered roles

Beyond the trauma of unwanted sex, rape is understood to demolish the victim's manhood and turn him into a "woman". This is linked to the way in which dominant inmate culture perceives gender to be connected to certain sex roles: men penetrate and women are penetrated. Rape and coercion are, as a result, used to brutally impose a feminized identity on a portion of the male prisoner population.

"Women" are generally stigmatized as inferior and become the sexual property of inmates identified as "men": prison "womanhood" usually means being the constant target of harassment and abuse. In the words of one young inmate: "We are all criminals in here and if I say you are a criminal that means that I respect you. But if you have had sex done to you, even the criminal in you is now gone and you are now a woman… There is nothing we can do for you. Some people just look and some want to sleep with you and when you walk past people, they want to touch or threaten to rape you."

An initial rape often sees victims being taken by the perpetrators as prison "wives" or wyfies (in Afrikaans-influenced prison slang) in long-term coercive relationships known as "prison marriages". The "husband" provides material goods and consumables for his wyfie, who is required to do domestic tasks and be constantly sexually available to him. While such relationships contain differing levels of coercion and evolve differently over time, it is generally agreed that the majority of wyfies despise their positions, remaining in them only because of fear.

Particularly oppressive notions of gender are at the centre of much of the sex happening in prison. To be naïve, trusting, poor, and not prepared to use violence are qualities associated with inferiority and womanliness. Manliness is equated with the use of violence and the ability to endure certain forms of it, deviousness, and participation in the prison economy (through smuggling and theft). Power lies with men. The centrality of violence to manhood is highlighted in the typical requirement that wyfies seeking promotion to manhood perform a specific violent deed in order to prove worthiness of manhood.

Homophobia and alternative sexual relations

A Stop Prison Rape activist once said that in American prisons an inmate "could be fucking his cellmate every night, but will truthfully, as far as he is concerned deny that he has had a homosexual experience in prison". It is much the same in South African prisons where the most common and sanctioned forms of sexual interaction (in marriages and the like) tend not to be connected to notions of homosexuality by many of the people involved.

Indeed, some other types of sexual interaction are considered deviant precisely because they are associated with homosexuality. Ushintsha ipondo – literally meaning to "exchange a pound" – is reportedly common but also a punishable offence according to the inmate code. It is characterized by consensual sex and often spoken of as "doing each other favours" (regularly, it involves people who are simultaneously other prisoners wyfies). In these relationships, neither partner is considered to be inferior/superior, and both take turns to penetrate and receive. By doing so they are disrupting the system that demands that penetration is only for "men" and receiving only for "women", and cannot therefore be divided into genders on the basis of a restricted sex role. This blurring of gender leads to its association with homosexuality and the threat it poses to the sexual status quo behind bars.

Institutionalization of forced sex

A potentially vast range of circumstances surround prison sex. For instance, sex interactions contained in relationships defined by love feelings between partners are also reported, although less commonly. It is rape, coercion, and exploitation that have the strongest hold, and while the boundaries in prison between consent and coercion are particularly blurred, blatantly forced sex frequently escapes being viewed as such, but is rather considered normal and acceptable. Sexual abuse is embedded within inmate culture, and is most visible in the rules, rituals, and ranks employed by powerful prison gangs to organize sex along the destructive lines of "marriage". At another level, such practices are also endorsed by the lack of attention they receive from prison officials.

Important to recognize however, is that the ways that people outside of prison relate to each other play a fundamental part in these damaging prison processes. Popular beliefs around gender, for example, are behind the inferior way in which "prison women" are viewed, the entitlement of men to sex from them, and the powerful perception that victims of forced sex in prison, like those outside, are to blame for what has happened to them. The myth that, "real men do not get raped" has a grip in the outside world as well. Explanations from prisoners highlight the connections with broader society: "Wyfies are treated just like women outside", said one. Or, in the words of another, "You can't rape your wife".

Damaging and damaged identities

Particularly destructive notions of what it means to be a man or woman are intensified and entrenched in prison. Intolerances are fuelled, abusive and dangerous behaviours learnt and trauma caused. Prison is likely to provide young inmates with some of their most decisive views on sexuality and gender, ones on which they will base future relationships. Further, sexual violence has severe consequences for the spread of HIV and STIs and the health of prisoners. Amidst high crime levels, punitive public attitudes prevail and the health and well-being of inmates are not of popular concern. If the realities of life behind bars continue to be ignored, many men exposed to life in prison will be condemned to living out damaging and damaged identities.

But while the area is starved of the attention it so urgently requires, a sprinkling of individuals and groups have made a vital start: like the successful committee of inmates and staff in one KwaZulu-Natal prison that works to manage and prevent HIV/AIDS there, or another, set up in the notorious Cape Pollsmoor prison, to support victims of prison rape; or the drama performances by a Gauteng NGO that challenge the oppressive and gendered inmate power relations at the same time as they raise awareness of HIV risk. The learnings and experiences provided in initiatives like these need to be shared and drawn on to focus a broad and concerted strategy to prevent the violence and safe-guard prisoners' health.

Sasha Gear, Researcher Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation; PO Box 30778, Braamfontein, South Africa, 2017; tel.: +27-11-403.56.50 ext 141, fax: +27-11-339.67.85, e-mail:, web:

1. S. Gear & K. Ngubeni. Daai ding: Sex, sexual violence and coercion in men's prisons. Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2002: .

HIV/AIDS and prisons in South Africa

The majority of prisoners in South Africa fall into a category at high risk for HIV infection: young, uneducated, black men. They face problems of overcrowding, violence and poor nutrition. Very little is known about HIV prevalence among inmates however. Based on the assumption that HIV prevalence in South African prisons is twice that of the prevalence amongst the same age and gender in the general population, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) estimated in 2003 that some 40% of male and female inmates were HIV infected in the year before.1 A study among 271 male inmates of the Westville Medium Security Prison in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal Province, showed that 30% was infected with HIV.2

"Natural deaths" in prison, most of which are believed to be AIDS-related, are on the rapid increase. During the period 1995-2004 the annual death rate escalated from 1.65 per 1000 prisoners to 9.1 deaths per 1000 prisoners. In 2004, 1689 deaths were considered natural and 69 were unnatural.3

The South African Department of Correctional Services has introduced a range of policies to address HIV/AIDS in prison, based on human rights principles and international guidelines, and covering issues such as confidentiality, non-discrimination, condom provision, medical treatment etc. However, due largely to chronic overcrowding and inadequate resources, these policies are at best, unevenly implemented – more often barely so.

1. K.C. Goyer. HIV/AIDS in prison. Problems, policies and potential. ISS Monograph No 79, 2003: .

2. J. Gow, G. Smith, K.C. Goyer & M. Colvin. The socio-economic characteristics of HIV in a South African prison. Abstract no. WePeD6529, XV International AIDS Conference, 2004, Bangkok.

3. Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons. Annual Report 2004/2005. Cape Town.


Human rights groups say hundreds die in Burundi prisons
Monday, 18 May, 1998, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK

A human rights group in Burundi says hundreds of prisoners have died from severe overcrowding and lack of health care.

A spokesman for the group Ligue Itekatold Reuters news agency that in one prison alone in the north of the country, more than two hundred inmates had died since the start of the year.

The director of Burundi's prison system said that only sixty-three people had died at the jail.

He did however acknowledge that conditions in the country's prisons were unacceptable.

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