Fifteen Years of HIV Prevention in Kyrgyz Prisons

A convict takes methadone therapy in a correctional colony

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”

Atlantis: rehabilitation of drug users in correctional institutions

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.

HIV prevention training for staff of the State Department for the Execution of Sentences

“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.”

Bridging the Gaps in Women’s Hostel in Kyrgyzstan

img_0956

Leila and Sofia live in women hostel in Bishkek

Five-year-old Sofia is playing with her mother’s telephone. The girl is sitting on the floor and is listening to the music. She is switching between the songs, watching videos, and trying to find her favourite track. There are four beds in a small room. At some moment, the girl puts the phone away and asks: “Mom, what will Santa bring me?”

“What would you like, dear?” she hears from her mother, and the broad smile appears on her face. “I would like him to bring me a kitten. I will feed it with milk.”

When the girl is smiling, she has cute dimples on her cheeks. She brings a toy – plastic alphabet with the buttons. She presses the letters and repeats them. Sometimes she gets the letters wrong, and then the mother asks her to do it again.

TELLS ABOUT HIV TO NEW FRIENDS

Sofia and her forty-year-old mother Leila live in the hostel that operates in the centre of adaptation and socialization of women – injecting drug users in the public fund Asteria in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Leila was recently released from prison.

img_0927

Leila is teaching Sofia an alphabet

“I do not have any relatives; I was raised in the orphanage. I got to prison when I was pregnant, and my daughter was born there,” Leila tells. “Now I work in the kitchen or wash the floors. Recently I went to Turkey, and wanted to find a job there, but I do not know Turkish language, and that is why it did not happen. By education, I am a seamstress and a pastry chef, but it is hard to find a job because I am HIV-positive. I am being asked about my diagnosis all the time, and I always have to go through medical examinations. Now I have found a job as a nursemaid, but I do not have anyone to leave my daughter with. She has to go to kindergarten, but all of them here are not free of charge. I will have to spend almost whole salary to cover the pay for kindergarten… I am currently waiting for the cash advance to pay.”

Leila says that she tells her new friends about her diagnosis, even though she does not always want to do it.

“I think, people with my disease should talk about it, and warn others as well. Now I also bring other people to get tested. I am telling them they have to do it, and that it is free of charge,” Leila says. “Of course, people treat me different when I tell them about my diagnosis. Yes, it is unpleasant, but I am happy that in this way I do something nice to others. Everybody should know such things.”

PRAYING FOR ASTERIA

Leila is worried that the hostel in Asteria can be closed. In that case, the woman can end up on the street. She does not have anywhere to go to.

“I should not be complaining; we have everything here. The main thing is the roof over your head,” the woman smiles and hugs her daughter. “I am very comfortable here. We receive medical treatment, there is a place to sleep, to do laundry. Every Sunday we go to church. In the church I always pray for this house, for people who help us here, and ask God that the organization has donors.”

img_0999

The head of Asteria Iren Ermolaeva shows the rules of the hostel

Leila says that she would like to move from the hostel in the future, but she does not have such possibility yet. She dreams of her own home, family, and work. She also wishes that the hostel will never close. People who work in Asteria have the same desire.

“We indeed often have problems with financing. Every year we do not know what to expect in the next one,” the head of the public fund Asteria Iren Ermolaeva says. “Our public fund is working since 2007, and the hostel – since 2009. We would like to have the whole range of services, but there is not enough financing these days. We know how to find the approach to women, we know how to create friendly atmosphere so that a woman would want to change her life for better herself, and we would like to use this knowledge. We feel sorry for our clients, and we would like to help them more.”

DREAMING ABOUT OWN HOUSE

Workers of Asteria also dream about purchasing the house where they will place the centre of adaptation and socialization of women – injecting drug users and the hostel. They have already found funds for the future house renovation, but cannot find money for its purchase.

“Then we would be able to have social entrepreneurship, maybe some little farm. In that way, we could at least not depend on donors in food,” the coordinator of the social services of the fund Tatiana Musagalieva is saying. “Until now, we rented all three houses for our centre.”

img_0978

Asteria workers Iren Ermolaeva (on the right) and Tatiana Musagalieva say that their organisation often has problems with financing

Thanks to “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations” project from Public Foundation “AIDS Foundation East-West in the Kyrgyz Republic”, in 2016 Asteria could support four beds in the hostel. The project also helped with medicine and warm food.

“People often come to us to eat, to do laundry,” Iren Ermolaeva says. “Around 300 women come through our centre during one year. Leila, for instance, came here after she was released from prison. She has got all the necessary services, clothes, shoes, and got medical examinations. Leila was imprisoned for five years, and, now, due to the conditions that we have, she adapts and integrates into society. In this way, she becomes more confident in herself, can find a job and build her future.”

Irina Used Drugs and Became a Social Worker

irinaIrina Starkova started to use drugs in 1980’s in Osh city in Kyrgyzstan. She tried all the drugs that were available at that time starting with opium, ephedrine and finishing with heroin. She began to use drugs with her husband who was just released from prison.

In 1983, Irina gave birth to a son. “I was happy, but even that did not stop me from drug usage. I couldn’t imagine life without drugs, – Iryna says. – In 1990, I was imprisoned for the first time. After that, I was imprisoned for three times more. In total, I was in detention for almost 11 years, and it was all for the drug use.”

Thus, her son grew up mostly without his mother. Irina’s parents were raising him up. In 2000, she was visited by a specialist from the AIDS Center. He took her blood for HIV testing, and a week later Irina got to know that she was HIV positive. At that time, she had very little information about her diagnosis. “I didn’t know how to live and was afraid of people and relatives condemn, – she remembers. – But I began to shoot up even more drugs. I thought that I will die soon because of HIV…”

Nine years ago, when she was released from prison for the last time, her mom and son got to know that Irina was HIV positive. Their reaction was very unpleasant: Irina’s son said that he did not need a mother, and that she was his shame, and her mother was afraid to live with her in the same apartment. Therefore, Irina was forced to leave to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

In Bishkek she also found heroin, and it all lasted until she went to rehabilitation in NGO “Ranar” where she got helped. “I don’t use drugs for 9 years already, – she says. – In 2009, I was tested for HIV one more time and I found out that I am healthy and I have no positive status. They explained me that this was an erroneous result. I did not know whether to laugh or cry, because all these years were a nightmare for me. What would have my life been if I knew that I was not sick…”

When Irina went back to Osh, she visited women center “Podruga” (“Girlfriend” in Russian) to receive their services. “Podruga” was established to combat HIV, AIDS and STIs in the Kyrgyz Republic among vulnerable groups. The organization is also is active in HIV/AIDS advocacy and human rights. Now, for three years already, Irina is working in the organization as a social worker. She helps women who use drugs.