Police officers, prison officials and inmates in isolation as Covid-19 hits correctional services

Fifteen police officers have tested positive for Covid-19

National police spokesperson Vish Naidoo told the Mail & Guardian that even though they did not have a clear breakdown of how many officers have tested positive in each province, the 15 officers were infected in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

“For now, we’re trying by all means to procure enough consumables such as sanitisers, masks and other material for our members. This includes having our members screened,” said Naidoo.

Despite the massive task police officers are faced with during the lockdown — they are at the forefront of ensuring that the public adheres to the rules — Naidoo added that they were trying hard to contain the spread of the virus.

“In terms of containing the spread of Covid-19 in holding cells, all those detained will be screened upon being arrested and the holding facilities are being sanitised thoroughly to make sure they don’t pose the risk of infecting others,” said Naidoo.

The news comes as the number of people testing positive within the prison system are increasing at an alarming rate in the Eastern Cape with 77 cases reported at correctional facilities, including East London’s Westbank prison, a prison for women; and one official from St Albans prison in Port Elizabeth. According to the department of correctional services (DCS), the official from St Albans prison is in self-isolation at home.

By Tuesday, nationally, the number of people who had tested positive for the disease had jumped to 2 415, with two new deaths adding to the new total of 27. 

In the Eastern Cape, 23 prison officials and 53 inmates have been confirmed to have tested positive for Covid-19.  Provincial health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the tracing teams have already been to the correctional facilities in East London.

“Hence these confirmed cases, and we continue to conduct tracing and tests as part of our testing campaign,” said Kupelo. 

“The serious challenge with the Eastern Cape are funerals and the number of infections are jumping due to circumstances linked to funerals … On issues of quarantine, people are quarantined outside hospitals because we are trying to reduce the infection rate in hospitals,” he said.

Kupelo said that the health department has also identified hospitals and intensive-care unit beds, should the need for people to be admitted arise. Kupelo also said that additional quarantine sites have been identified throughout the Eastern Cape by the department of public works.

Isolation cells

Department of correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said that infected prisoners have already been placed in isolation cells. 

“All those [who] tested positive for Covid-19 are either placed in quarantine services or under isolation. We have isolation cells in place for prisoners and officials have been placed in our guest rooms with these facilities. We are also looking at the option of making additional park homes to assist for quarantine purposes,” said Nxumalo.

The department of correctional services indicated that, together with the health department, it has identified hospitals and healthcare centres where inmates can be transferred should the need arise.

“Disinfection of the environment at East London correctional centre is under way. This is a measure to prevent contamination of surfaces and inanimate objects,” said Nxumalo.

The department has already advised that visits to prisons will be restricted.

“The DCS has issued a circular advising correctional centres to increase the limit of the amounts that inmates are allowed to buy from the centre tuckshops. This will allow inmates to buy items from the tuckshops [while] adhering to social-distancing protocols. We also have ramped-up toiletries we provide to inmates so that offenders are not disadvantaged,” read the statement.

The department has also said that it has activated its disaster-management response strategy.

“We are looking at the rapid identification of laboratory-confirmed cases and the isolation of those who test positive and the management of the pandemic in our centres,” said Nxumalo. 

According to Nxumalo, there is more than enough personal protective equipment to avoid the spread of the virus. “We are looking at how best we can deal with movement of our officials from their residences to the centres, and the activities they embark on outside working hours.”

Nxumalo also said one other department official, based at the head office in Pretoria, is now in self-isolation at home.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is an Open Society Fellow in Investigative Reporting at Wits University. Currently spending six months with the Mail and Guardian in the Investigations desk. He started journalism with Independent Media’s vernacular publication, I’solezwe LesiXhosa in East London. He has freelanced for publications such as GroundUp and Workers World Media.

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