“If you know about HIV, you don’t have to be afraid of it”: How the Red Cross is helping to challenge stigma and offer hope in Russian prisons

Daniil was a teenager when he contracted HIV from having a tattoo in a pretrial detention centre. He recalls: “I was scared and didn’t know how I’d got infected because I had never taken drugs. I didn’t know what to do and I thought I’d die soon.”

“When I got to the colony, I found out there were guys called peer trainers’. I was very glad to receive support in those hard times.”

There are an estimated 40,000 HIV positive inmates like Daniil in Russia, making the prison population a major focus of the country’s HIV epidemic. The majority of inmates were infected before entering prison and many have been injecting drug users. Entering prison is often the first time they have been tested.

The Russian Red Cross began working in prisons in 2005 with the aim of reducing HIV transmission by raising awareness amongst inmates and staff and providing support to those living with the virus. The programme provides support and education to inmates right the way through the prison process, from entering a detention centre to being released back into society.

Training prison staff was vitally important for the programme’s success. Elena Feodorova from the Russian Red Cross explains: “We
encountered staff members who believed myths like you can tell if somebody is HIV positive simply from their appearance. Educating staff to understand the real facts about HIV prevention made a big difference.

Many began running training courses using the Red Cross methodology after attending courses themselves.”

Between 2006 and the first half of 2009, the programme reached over 12,000 staff and inmates with support and awareness raising messages.

For many prisoners, the Red Cross’ enduring support inspired them to become volunteers. Daniil explains: “When I found out the Red Cross was providing training for trainers, I was the first one to sign up. Now I’m a peer instructor and am very proud of it. I’m glad my life has meaning.”

This training played a particularly important role in 2007 when a change in legislation meant HIV positive prisoners were, for the first time, integrated into mainstream prison wards rather than being contained in special wings. As one inmate reflects:

“It’s not a secret that in the beginning we faced huge problems. I had very strong fear. I did not know how to live together with these people. After Red Cross training, I changed my mind. If you know everything about HIV, you don’t have to be afraid of it.”