Prisoners fear coronavirus threat

Inmates at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town show members of the media gang signs as they walk through the prison during an inspection by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services in 2016. Bertram Malgas

Inmates at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town show members of the media gang signs as they walk through the prison during an inspection by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services in 2016. Bertram Malgas

Published Apr 25, 2020


Johannesburg - At first, Siboniso Miya is hesitant to reveal his identity. The inmate at Zonderwater Correctional Services facility in Cullinan fears he may be punished for criticising officials at the Pretoria prison.

After much consideration, he changes his mind, Miya wants to expose the negligence and lack of safety by prison officials over the spread of the coronavirus.

“I don't think I should hide my identity when we are faced with such a serious pandemic.” The high-profile inmate is serving a 12-year sentence for his role in the abduction of Bheki Lukhele, an order allegedly put out by controversial Czech businessman Radovan Krejcir in 2015.

Miya, a former taxi boss, fears he and his fellow inmates will die in prison because of the alleged lack of safety and protective measures.

“We have officials going in and out of prison and they don't protect themselves or us when they come in contact with inmates They claim they get checked and sanitised on entry, therefore they are safe.

“I challenged the head of the centre today, but he confidently said there is no virus in both centres.

“Many of the wardens are allowed to go in and out without protective gear, but yet my legal visits are non-contact to ‘protect’ me, yet they're not protecting us every day from this virus.”

The Department of Correctional Services this week reported 11 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total number to 111 for both prisoners and those working in prisons.

The Eastern Cape remains the hardest-hit province with a total of 87 infections: 56 prisoners and 31 officials, while in the Western Cape, 20 officials and one prisoner have tested positive. Limpopo has recorded two infections, both officials, not prisoners.

One infection has also been recorded at the department's head office in Pretoria. No other provinces have recorded positive coronavirus infections at their facilities.

Miya's complaints have fallen on dead ears. “Yesterday I was called to the office regarding my complaints and there I was with the head of centre and six other officials and none of them had masks or gloves and neither was there any social distancing. I had to go in with my nose and mouth covered with a hanky.

"Social distancing is impossible in prison and there is a huge worry for inmates living in communal cells because they lock up so early, and they have no chance to dodge the virus once it hits Zonderwater.

“We are all living in fear, even officials. It's really tense here and they admit that the only way for us to get this virus is through them bringing it from outside, and since they're not taking precautions we are helpless and waiting for the virus to take over.”

All inmates are told is to wash their hands. “I bought masks from an inmate who works at the hospital, but now they're finished. I'm now using a hanky as a mask when I leave my cell.

"I've asked my family to try to get me reusable masks, but I doubt they will allow them in. I'm lucky I stay in a two-celled cage in segregation, so I keep to my space and wash my hands regularly.”

Outside, it's not safe for anyone. “I use the public phone and I have to wipe it down every time since we share it among 50 inmates in my section.”

Neither Miya or any inmates have been tested for the virus, he claims.

“I wanted private testing, which my family was going to pay for, but the head of centre refused... At least if the officials could be tested and stay safe we wouldn't panic. We should be the safest if proper measures were taken early.”

Miya said inmates have offered their help to prison officials to fight the virus, but this has been rejected.

“The hate they have for inmates clouds their judgement. And when the virus spreads like East London and prisoners start panicking, they won't be ready for the inmates' unrest.

"Our little clinic can't even cure normal flu, imagine coronavirus. We are not allowed private medication and are forced to smuggle it in if we have cop friends.”

Inmates have not been informed of any quarantine areas in the prison.

“The only place suitable for quarantine in all prisons is the single cells or bomb cells like the ones Ronald Lamola staged for the nation three weeks ago... One guy who dishes up my food had breathing complications and was moved to the hospital section on Monday. The section is small and is mixed with TB patients and other inmates.

“Social distancing is impossible inside and we rely on warders for everything, so we are at their mercy and ask them to wear proper gear.”

Miya said he and his inmates will consider striking, as prisoners in the Eastern Cape have done, should their concerns not be addressed. “We should be the safest people from the virus if proper measures were taken early.”

The Department of Correctional Services said there has been screening at all its centres and supplies are being provided continuously, for inmates and officials. “Improving personal and environmental hygiene, provision of personal equipment, sanitisation and decontamination interventions is what we have been doing and continue to do,” said spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo.

“Where shortages are experienced, the department has a system in place to assist correctional centres in need of stock while awaiting delivery.

"Centres have a flexibility to share resources and we continue to engage with our officials and inmates. Therefore, reports purporting that inmates are not protected against the virus cannot be sustained.”

The focus is on prevention, containment/treatment and disaster recovery.

“The department activated infection control measures at all management areas with specific directives to ensure personal protective equipment is availed and has pushed for the sanitisation of reception areas, cells, offices, vehicles and ablution facilities.”

Nxumalo also labelled calls by inmates to strike as irresponsible and reckless.

“The department has taken note of mobilisation efforts by (prisons activist) Miles Bhudu and other individuals, instigating inmates to revolt against the state.

“The department must reiterate its deep concern over this form of mobilisation, propagating for chaos inside centres.”

Calls to strike were unwarranted as the department “has been regularly updating the nation on progress in terms of the implementation of our Covid-19 disaster management response strategy.”

Saturday Star 

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