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Increasing number of Covid-19 cases at prisons could be 'catastrophic'

File picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA)

File picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 7, 2020

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Cape Town – Human rights organisation Sonke Gender Justice says it fears the more than 160 positive Covid-19 cases at prisons represent “only the beginning of a catastrophic increase in positive cases”.

Two East London inmates died of complications arising from Covid-19 this week, taking the number of deaths at facilities to three. One death in the Western Cape is under investigation.

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Sonke’s national prisons co-ordinator Zia Wasserman has called on the government to release certain categories of detainees in order to reduce overcrowding and curb the spread of Covid-19.

“We are highly concerned about the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, and fear that this may only be the beginning of a catastrophic increase in positive cases.

“This is largely due to the high levels of overcrowding, which makes social distancing practically impossible.

“Furthermore, anecdotal evidence tells us there are woefully insufficient supplies of personal protection equipment (PPE) being distributed among the staff and those detained within the prisons.

While we commend the department for its screening campaign, we are worried that not enough tests are being conducted,” Wasserman said.

The Western Cape had 52 cases at correctional facilities, of which 49 of the sufferers were officials.

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Department of Correctional Services (DCS) spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said there were 165 cases in the department and health-care practitioners were already on site, providing an array of health services. 

They had been provided with adequate PPE and were attending to those in need of urgent medical care.

“DCS is saddened to confirm two deaths of inmates with underlying co-morbid conditions at an East London centre and we send our sincere condolences to their families.

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“We continue to work with the Department of Health, adhering to all their guidelines in fighting against this pandemic,” Nxumalo said.

In his Cape Times column Beautiful Truths this week, legal practitioner and listed counsel of the International Criminal Court, Michael Donen SC, recalled representing a Mr Lee who was imprisoned pending trial after being charged with a non-violent crime.

Donen said while Lee was in prison, the matter was postponed numerous times and he had appeared in court about 70 times before he was finally acquitted and released.

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While in prison, he contracted tuberculosis. He died due to his condition. “The Constitutional Court held that the Minister of Correctional Services (now the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services) was responsible for Lee having contracted tuberculosis.

“The law is clear. When prisoners die from Covid-19 due to overcrowding, the government will be responsible,” Donen said.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development refused to respond to Donen’s piece with no reasons.

Cape Times

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