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Covid-19 hits prison system

Prisons officials are preparing for the worst after a female correctional officer at the East London women’s correctional facility tested positive for the virus.

Chrispin Phiri, spokesperson for Justice and Correctional Services minister Ronald Lamola, confirmed that the warder, who had been displaying Covid-19 symptoms since attending a funeral service, had tested positive on Monday.

She had been placed in isolation, while her contacts — both inside and outside the prison — were being traced, Phiri said.

She was the only department of correctional services (DCS) staff member to test positive thus far. No prisoners had been found to have the virus thus far.

“Things are at a very advanced stage. We are in the process of tracking any other officials who may have been exposed. Offenders in that section have been isolated,’’ Phiri said.

Department officials would be issued with personal protective equipment (PPE) only if they were dealing with offenders who were either showing Covid-19 symptoms or who had tested positive for the virus.

“DCS members are only required to use PPE if interacting with offenders who are positive. They cannot use the gear if offenders are not positive. Should they come into contact or have symptoms, they are required to inform us and self-quarantine and we will send health officials to administer the procedures,’’ Lamola said.

Each correctional centre had already identified specific quarantine areas so that prisoners could be treated in isolation should they become ill.

Wardens in several prisons told the Mail & Guardian this week that they were concerned about the lack of gloves and masks.

A warder at the Waterval prison in KwaZulu-Natal, who asked not to be named, said they had received death threats from prisoners, who said they would kill them if they brought the virus into the prison.

“We are in real danger here,” the warder said. “We aren’t being issued with PPE and the prisoners are saying that if we give them the virus, they will kill us.

“We go to work every day fearing for our lives — not just from the virus, but from them. If one of them gets sick, we are in trouble. We have told management, but we are not getting the equipment we need to keep us safe while we work,’’ the warden said.

“We are also putting our families at risk by coming to work with no protection every day. If people should wear masks in the street, what about us working under these conditions?”

Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said officials who had come into contact with the warden had been asked to self-isolate at home.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases would conduct mass screening at the East London female correctional centre from Wednesday.

Nxumalo said “hysteria” created by inmates or officials was “aimed at dominating the environment, thus placing the entire nation on the edge of what may look like an emerging crisis, while reality is the exact opposite”.

“Our approach is focused on prevention, containment/treatment and disaster recovery. The department activated infection-prevention control measures at all management areas with specific directives to ensure that PPE is availed and

has pushed for the sanitation of reception areas, cells, offices, vehicles and ablution facilities,’’ Nxumalo said.

He said mass screening and testing of inmates and officials would take place at all correctional centres, while the department would continue to improve its measures for personal hygiene, sanitisation and the provision of personal protective equipment.

Nxumalo said that when there were shortages, resources would be shared between centres.

A team of security experts and other professionals was planning for the worst-case scenario should the pandemic reach “unimagined proportions”.

“They will be jointly working with other security-cluster partners to explore and consider different crisis and emergency possibilities, to craft appropriate and operationally responsive interventions should the epidemic reach unimagined proportions.

“We have also procured mobile quarantine sites, which will assist to isolate those who may have acquired the virus while awaiting to be moved to outside hospitals,’’ Nxumalo said.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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