Published: Sunday 15 March 1998

-- An aids epidemic is just waiting to explode behind the locked doors of Brazil's prisons. And the situation is worsening every minute. Medical facilities are on the brink of a total breakdown, the jails face near-endemic overcrowding and the authorities are indifferent to the pathetic conditions inside these prisons. Take Joao da Silva's case. A 28-year-old convict serving a 14-year sentence in the central prison of Porto Alegre, da Silva was recently told that he had the dreaded disease and that death was imminent.

However, his case is typical of the treatment meted out to thousands of Human Immuno-defficiency Virus (hiv) -positive inmates in these prisons. According to a document signed by 30 patients from the Carandiru, the country's biggest prison, doctors are rarely seen within the jail premises and medi-cal facilities are almost nonexistant."We are treated mostly by our fellow priso-ners, and suffer from horrible wounds caused by lack of hygiene and mobi-lity," the document goes on to say.

Though official statistics are not forthcoming, aids, according to epidemiologist Ricardo Marines, remains the single biggest killer in all Brazilian prisons. Of the 25 deaths, registered at Porto Alegre prison recently, 21 were aids -related. Research has revealed that 17.3 per cent of all detainees in Carandiru are hiv -positive; at Sorocaba prison in Sao Paulo state, this rate is 12.5 per cent.

The Brazilian health ministry speculates that the prevalence of hiv in the jails is about 15 per cent - an alarming one in every seven prisoners. However, it has recently conceded the "real scale" of the problem re-mains unknown. "The number of hiv -positive prisoners could be more than we can imagine," said a spokesperson from the ministry recen-tly. A report recently compiled by member's of Brazilian Congress afford some terrifying insights into the lives of the prisoners. The report says that many prisoners - barely able to move - often treat themselves by applying sugar and coffee to their wounds, believing that this expedites the healing process.

Brazil has some 250 pri-sons with an equal number of police stations that have been converted into make-shift prisons harbouring a total of 150,000 prisoners.

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