Five years after the demise of apartheid, Vincent, a young, fresh-faced man arrived in remand detention in a Western Cape facility.

Vincent had never been to prison before, and when he arrived he was thrown into an overcrowded cell that held first-time inmates and long-standing gang members. He was scared to death and, sadly, his fears were confirmed: on his first night, he was raped – by two different inmates.

PrIsoner rape is crime that reaches beyond the prison walls when survivors are released back to the community carrying their trauma and sexually transmitted diseases. Picture: Karen Sandison. Credit: Independent Media

A third rape was averted only because another gang member intervened to stop it – and was beaten as a result. Vincent’s horrible first night resembled many others to come during his incarceration.

Unlike many survivors who, understandably, choose to keep quiet about their assault, Vincent dared to ask for help.

He reached out to nurses, wardens, priests, social workers, and even magistrates – but they all refused to help him.

Vincent did not get the support he needed and it would take him three years to get proper medical treatment. It was only then that he learnt that he had contracted HIV.

Rape in prison is a global human rights and public health crisis, with devastating consequences for its victims.

Whether committed in the home, in the community, or in prison, rape causes serious emotional and physical harm. In the aftermath of his assault, Vincent felt fear, shame, anger, anxiety and depression. He also experienced nightmares – all reactions which are common among survivors.

While anyone can be raped in prison, some people are targeted more often than others.

Inmates who are gay, bisexual, and transgender are viewed as “unmanly”. This includes the young, small, timid, and those with disabilities. First-time prisoners are extremely vulnerable to this violence.

Prisoner rape is a crime which affects more than just the individuals who have experienced it; this abuse reaches beyond prison walls when survivors are released back into the community, carrying their trauma, and their diseases, with them.

Even prisoners who are not subjected to rape are forced to adapt to a culture that endorses toxic notions of gender and sexuality.

These notions, together with trauma and disease, are fed back into communities when prisoners are released.

It is crucial that we all work to address a problem which clearly affects us all. Contrary to popular belief, rape is not an inevitable part of prison life. It is preventable.

Facilities with committed leaders and staff, good policies, and sound practices can keep people safe and support survivors.

But although rape in detention is a global crisis, depressingly few countries are taking steps to address it.

Fortunately, South Africa is an exception. In a major victory for prisoners’ rights, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) approved the Policy to Address Sexual Abuse of Inmates in DCS Facilities (Sexual Abuse Policy).

Released in 2013, this policy gives DCS officials the tools to prevent, detect, respond to, and document the sexual abuse of inmates.

DCS, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, and Just Detention International – South Africa were instrumental in the development of the Sexual Abuse Policy, and it has the potential to make a real difference in the fight against abuse and HIV in our prisons.

The policy’s signature features include life-saving reforms that Just Detention International – South Africa has championed for years, such as distribution of condoms and lubricants to inmates; the provision of holistic crisis services for survivors, including Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV prevention; rigorous training of DCS officials; prisoner education on the right to be safe; screening of inmates for risk factors; and increased protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and other vulnerable inmates.

It is encouraging that DCS has begun taking some of these steps, like the distribution of condoms and lubricants. In collaboration with Just Detention International – South Africa, the DCS trains officials at Leeukwop, a Johannesburg prison, on inmate safety and conducts risk assessments of inmates on their point of arrival at the facility.

But more needs to be done, through a holistic, consistent, and co-ordinated approach between DCS, oversight bodies and other civil society organisations, before the Sexual Abuse Policy will lead to systemic changes that are needed to make our prisons safer.

Even though Vincent continues to struggle with painful emotions, his courage and determination are remarkable: he persists in taking strides to rebuild and heal his life, and in trying to prevent what happened to him, from happening to others.

* Prince Nare is a senior programme officer at Just Detention International – South Africa, a health and human rights organisation that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.