April 16, 2009 / 4:09 PM / 10 years ago

Poor prisons creating HIV time-bomb: U.N.

VIENNA (Reuters) - HIV spread through drug abuse is rampant in overcrowded prisons across the world, posing a health risk to society when infected inmates are released, the head of the U.N. drugs and crimes agency said on Thursday.

A correction officer walks through the corridors at the general prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 2, 2004. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

If prisons are a reflection of society as a whole “we are seeing a disaster around the world,” Antonio Maria Costa said, highlighting substandard prisons as one of the major concerns of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

There are around 30 million people under detention at any given time, the UNODC said, and the spread of HIV through drug abuse in prisons is a severe problem.

Costa warned of a time-bomb when large numbers of infected inmates are released.

“This is a health bomb because of HIV they take along and this is a bomb because prisons are universities for criminals,” he told a news conference.

Costa said the problem of overcrowding in jails was especially bad in Africa and Central America, where he had visited some prisons housing up to ten times the number of inmates they were built for.

One prison he visited in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contained around 4,000 prisoners but had been built for 420. Inmates had to stand because the rooms were so crowded and they had nowhere to sleep. In other countries, prisons house two to three times the number of prisoners they should, Costa said. He said the global economic crisis was already slowing the construction of prisons and that he was not optimistic conditions would improve soon.

“Money for prisons is limited worldwide ... priority is given to children, to education, to health, to the elderly.”

The United Nations has led a 54-year campaign to improve prisons, developing a set of standards for how they should be run and how inmates should be treated with guidance on food, shelter and clothing.

Costa said the United Nations needed to encourage countries to follow these guidelines and to look at alternatives to prison for minor crimes to ease overcrowding.

Editing by Katie Nguyen

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