Tuberculosis runs riot in Pollsmoor

This week the Minister of Correctional Services was taken to task in the highest court of the land, for repeatedly breaking the law, and the subsequent sad state of health in our prisons.

On Tuesday, nine Constitutional Court judges heard argument in what is the last leg of an arduous legal journey by Dudley Lee, a 65-year-old Capetonian businessmen who contracted tuberculosis while awaiting trial in Pollsmoor for four and a half years.

Lee was ultimately exonerated in 2003, on charges of fraud and money laundering, with no apology.

But his lungs had been scarred, he had aged dramatically, and he had lost his family, his health and his business.

"I've lost everything," he says.

"I'm asking the state for some restitution. I can't find a job and nothing can pay for my loss of quality of life. My life is stuffed from lying in that filthy hole".

And he won't be the only one to suffer this fate: while there has been no measure of the number of prisoners infected with TB, the recent study Tuberculosis in a South African Prison, admitted as evidence in the trial, shows that the conditions at Pollsmoor, where Lee was held in maximum security, result in a TB transmission risk of 90% per year.

During his incarceration Lee was held in cells made for 20 people, but holding 80, and was taken to court 70 times during his stay.

Visibly ill
He says that at court he was kept in an overcrowded holding cell, where people from different prisons, and different levels of security – many visibly ill – were kept together.

"You are always surrounded by people coughing and spluttering," he says.

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, the department of correctional services (DCS) has admitted to breaking the law in a number of ways, which civil society organisations say is a big step forward.

The Western Cape High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgments found that prison authorities are violating prisoners' rights, and the law by ignoring standing orders set out by the Correctional Services Act 111 of 1998, as well as Sections 27 and 12 (e) of the Constitution, which state that Lee has the right to access to health services, and not to be treated in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.

The SCA found that any system for managing TB in Pollsmoor was "effectively non-existent", a fact that Justice Edwin Cameron mentioned repeatedly at Tuesday's hearing.

Lee, now living in an old age home and unemployed, explains that in prison, after months of coughing and asking for medical attention, he was only diagnosed with TB by default when he was taken to hospital for a hernia, and that there were not enough nurses to monitor his medicine regimen.

Ideal space
"The department violated every right in the book," he says.

According to Professor Robin Wood, co-author of the study of TB in Pollsmoor and director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, the prison has a number of characteristics making it an ideal space for TB to spread.

"The study shows that conditions prevailing in Pollsmoor prison are extremely conducive to the ongoing transmission of TB, including drug-resistant TB … Crowding, long lock-up times up to 23 hours per day and inadequate ventilation result in prisoners rebreathing contaminated air for prolonged periods of time."

There is also a delay of up to four months in accessing medical care, he says.

Lee says that screening of new prisoners for diseases or infections, either doesn't happen, or is done by a fellow inmate.

Ilham Rawoot is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.

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