/ 20 June 2021

‘Vaccinate inmates to avoid crisis’

Justice Edwin Cameron. Madelene Cronjé
Right to healthcare: Edwin Cameron, the inspecting judge at the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services. Photo: Madelene Cronjé

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services has called for the Covid-19 vaccination of prisoners and those guarding them to be speeded up. The virus spreads rapidly in confined and overcrowded spaces and prisons are a clear example of such places. This is especially true for awaiting trial prisoners because they eat, exercise and sleep in small spaces as large groups. 

Edwin Cameron, the inspecting judge at the inspectorate, said increasing the rate of vaccinating prisoners could assist in avoiding a looming public health crisis and risks associated with those incarcerated in closed settings.

The judicial inspectorate said those in prison have as much right to healthcare as anyone else. 

But an alleged shortage of personal protective equipment and the real and dangerous impossibility of social distancing are the challenges that prisoners at Johannesburg’s “Sun City” prison have to navigate daily.

A prisoner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the correctional services department could be lying about just how serious the spread is inside detention centres.

“I have been here for 10 years now. Serving a 20-year sentence. The reality is that overcrowding inside here is ignored and out of control.” 

“I share a bed with two other prisoners here. Even PPE [personal protective equipment] is a problem to us most of the time. Social distancing is totally impossible, everyone knows that. This is a prime place for Covid-19 to spread and we await a disaster.” 

Singabakho Nxumalo, the spokesperson for the correctional services department, denied the prisoner’s account.

“Personal protective equipment at all correctional centres is available. Our top priority remains the health and safety of our officials, inmates and the public,” he said. “We will therefore continue to monitor the situation and adjust safety measures and operating procedures where necessary.” 

Nxumalo added that the department has decided to reduce the visitor allowances for a prisoner to two visits a month. He said this is done with caution, given the reality of positive cases.

Emerantia Cupido, the spokesperson for the inspectorate, said: “All inmates have a basic right to healthcare as enshrined in section 27 of the constitution (Bill of Rights). Therefore the judicial inspectorate closely monitors the rights of prisoners to ensure compliance by DCS [the department of correctional services].

“The right to healthcare as enshrined in the constitution can therefore not be taken away. 

“The inspectorate has on numerous platforms publicly advocated for the vaccination of inmates as well as officials who guard them … those mentioned have been included in the roll-out plan and we will monitor the process.”

According to the department, 797 health care professionals, 90 officials and 426 inmates over 60 years of age have received the vaccination.

Nxumalo said there are only about 5 356 people in prison who are above the age of 60, which accounts for the low vaccination rates. He added that prisons have not recorded any vaccination side-effects to date. 

He said the department expects the roll-out to speed up when the government moves to vaccinate those aged 49 and older.

Nxumalo added that in the face of the third wave and of a possible fourth wave, the prison service has introduced measures to curb the spread of the virus.

“In managing this pandemic in our correctional facilities, the department of correctional services developed the standard operating procedures [SOPs] for preparedness, detection and response to Covid-19. 

“These SOPs provide guidance on mitigation strategies that must be implemented to prevent, detect and respond to Covid-19 at DCS. The SOPs are reviewed as required to incorporate new developments. 

“These SOPs are also aligned to the government’s risk categorisation in terms of alert levels.” 

Chris Gilili is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa