Many prison systems are struggling to cope, with overcrowding, inadequate resources, limited access to healthcare and other support services, violence and drug use. In 2021, the estimated numbers of people in prisons increased by 24% since the previous year to an estimated 10.8 million people, increasing the strain on already overstretched prison systems.
Drug use is prevalent in prisons. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that in some countries up to 50% of people in prisons use or inject drugs. Unsafe drug injecting practices are a major risk factor for the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C due to limited access to harm reduction services, including condoms, clean needles and syringes, and a lack of comprehensive drug treatment programs, particularly opioid agonist therapy.
People in prison are 7.2 times more likely to be living with HIV than adults in the general population. UNAIDS reports that HIV prevalence among people in prisons increased by 13% since 2017, reaching 4.3% in 2021. Although data are limited, it is thought that around one in four of the total prison population has hepatitis C.
“Access to healthcare, including harm reduction services, is a fundamental human right, and no one should be denied that right because they are incarcerated,” said Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS Regional Director for Asia Pacific and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “Prisons are too often ignored in countries’ efforts to respond to HIV. A multi sectoral, multifaceted approach is urgently needed to save lives, which includes access to clean needles and syringes, effective treatment for dependence on opioid drugs and reducing stigma and discrimination.”