A little snag…

Elisabeth Powelson

By Elisabeth Powelson

Elisabeth is a Human Rights Center Fellow and a grad student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. She is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, helping to lay the groundwork for a prison-based syringe exchange and condom-distribution project.

My project hit a snag: I had 10 interviews scheduled and was supposed to be in the prison for three straight days. On the first day of interviewing, we went in and interviewed our three participants for the day. Last week the warden for the H block (the HIV+ cell block) was on vacation visiting his family, so the person escorting us didn’t pay too much attention to our interviews; however this week the H-block warden was back.

This is on the visa application on your way in...

The mosque right outside of the prison, the staff use it and I think maybe some of the prisoners.

This is the front of the center where I am working, an amazing group of people!!

He’s a really nice guy and interested in research and what we are doing to help the prisoners. He looked at the questions we were asking and got very unhappy; he started telling me all about how there was no sex and no drugs in this prison and that putting in condoms or syringes was just a silly idea.

So about 3 hours after we left the prison we got a call from his boss, who said no more interviews unless we promise not to “go to the media,” whatever that means. It was very interesting because I think he does genuinely care about the work but this is a very hierarchical culture. He feels that if anyone is “misbehaving” on his block it is his fault; I think he has a certain idealism about how well he can control the situation.

At the end of the week I had an opportunity to attend a very interesting meeting that included all the important people in the prison system right up to the head of prisons for all of Malaysia. The group here was presenting some of their research, particularly about TB. Basically every prisoner and everyone who works in the prison has a positive TB skin test.  The key point for me at the meeting was that my project got brought up and won approval from the very highest guy.  It was really interesting the prison officials were very enthusiastic about increasing their harm reduction and having an “A” for being a prison with good support for drug users.


Front door of Malaysian prison.

The front entrance to the prison

It puts the U.S. to shame since we don’t even allow methadone in our prisons and we certainly are not interested in entertaining the idea of a syringe exchange and condom distribution. The system here is certainly not perfect and some of the stuff seems very archaic to me (separating all the HIV patients and doing mandatory HIV testing, as an example), but at least they are trying.

It’s been about a week since that meeting and it took what felt like forever for the permission to go back into the prison to trickle down. But as of tomorrow I am being met there by the head of the prison I am at, and I’m going to be able to interview him, his officers and more participants. I am probably one of the few people who cheered when I found out I got to go to prison!

Happy 4th of July. I am sad to be missing out on the fireworks. 🙂

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One Response to A little snag…

  1. Tilo Lopez says:

    Great reading, good to hear you’re addressing this issue. I never really put some thought into this but you are totally right! Major kuddos