Cape Town - A massive evacuation of thousands of inmates from Pollsmoor Prison apparently began on Friday after two prisoners died and scores of others were deemed to be at high risk of exposure to an infectious disease, thanks to a rampant rodent infestation at the Tokai institution.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has revealed that the disease, known as leptospirosis, is carried in rat urine and has already caused the deaths of two prisoners. Its presence in Pollsmoor is blamed on inmates’ close proximity to rats.
While authorities have not specified how many inmates will be evacuated, it is understood that many of the more than 4 000 detainees are to be temporarily moved to other prisons in an operation that will involve various police, law enforcement and Correctional Services authorities.
The evacuation comes after a scathing and unrelated report by Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, which was released earlier this month. In it Judge Cameron said he was shocked at the inhumane conditions at Pollsmoor and the sickly appearance of inmates.
On Friday, Kerrigan McCarthy, head of the outbreak unit at the NICD, told Weekend Argus that two Pollsmoor inmates had died of leptospirosis. She said the problems were identified during an inspection at the jail earlier this month.
Institute members had visited at the invitation of Correctional Services. They had examined the presence of rats in the prison, and how inmates were affected.
“There was extensive evidence of a rodent infestation in the prison. The risk of additional cases (of the disease) is great,” she said.
McCarthy said it had been recommended that Correctional Services screen inmates for the disease, clean the prison, and eliminate the rodents. She welcomed the evacuation.
Yesterday, however, Delekile Klaas, regional Correctional Services commissioner, denied that two inmates had died of leptospirosis, saying that one had.
He said the evacuation of Pollsmoor had been ordered because authorities did not want to risk the health of inmates.
Klaas said there was a two-month plan to deal with the problem, during which time the inmates would be evacuated, the facility cleaned, and the prisoners returned.
Klaas did not reveal how, to where and when the prisoners would be evacuated, saying this was confidential information.
Health Department spokesman Joe Maila said they were aware of the situation.
“People must not easily be able to throw food out the windows,” he said, which had been the case with the prisoners.
These food scraps had attracted rodents.
On Friday the ripple effect of the Pollsmoor evacuation was already apparently being experienced in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court, where police officers could be heard complaining there were delays because some suspects had been moved from Pollsmoor to prisons further away, including to Malmesbury.
But Hishaam Mohamed, development group chairman of the province’s Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster Committee, denied this.
Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union spokesman Richard Mamabolo said they were looking into the situation at Pollsmoor.
What is leptospirosis?
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases says leptospirosis is a bacterial infection carried by rodents.
Kerrigan McCarthy, head of the institute’s outbreak unit, said rodents did not suffer illness as a result of it, but excreted disease-causing organisms from their kidneys through urine.
These organisms could survive in moist areas. The institute’s website says animals, including dogs and livestock, can also carry the disease. People at risk of contracting it include vets, abattoir workers and hunters. It says humans can be infected through skin or mucus membranes, especially via abrasions, or via food contaminated by the urine of infected rodents.
The website says an infection can result in flu-like symptoms, which can escalate to liver damage and renal failure. Ten percent of cases prove fatal.