Inmates resort to desperate measures to force social distancing in crowded prisons
This week, inmates revealed the horrific lengths they are resorting to to avoid contracting Covid-19.
“For now, no one is being isolated besides those who transgress by burning each other with hot water,” said John Khumalo*, an inmate at Leeuwkop Maximum Correctional Centre.
“We’ve already had three cases this month. It’s the only way to ensure we are isolated from the rest of the inmates as it is impossible to maintain social distancing in this prison.”
Khumalo said he and his fellow inmates were unsure who has tested positive for Covid-19 and they did not have personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves.
“At Leeuwkop Medium C, we were tested for Covid-19 last month. We still haven’t received our results. It’s very irresponsible of the prison officials not to let us know.
“We don’t know who has it and who doesn’t. We are basically trapped here in prison and are just waiting to contract the virus and die.”
Chronic overcrowding has left prisons vulnerable. To date, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the Department of Correctional Services’ (DCS) facilities stands at 1128 - 461 officials and 667 inmates. This week there were 13 additional cases from prisons in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and North West.
Apart from overcrowding, Khumalo claimed officials were not following safety protocols.
“There are no safety precautions and physical distancing is impossible.
“The release of inmates on Covid-19 parole has not happened here. Even if certain inmates are released, it won’t make any difference. There still won’t be physical distancing because only around 40 inmates will be leaving.”
In Pretoria, at Baviaanspoort Maximum Correctional Centre, inmates shared similar concerns.
Michael Makhubela* said prison officials were refusing to let inmates know who has tested positive.
“As of now, Baviaanspoort has its first cases of coronavirus. However, the head of prison instructed officials not to give us the exact number of prisoners whose results returned positive. This is not withstanding the fact that about 15 inmates were taken for quarantine on May 5.
“What creates more curiosity is the fact that there is a shortage of officials since (last) Friday. The maximum centre is now only guarded by newly recruited officials with no experience.
“The centre is not sanitised as promised by the department at all. Officials/management are not taking precautions. Body searches are being conducted daily by officials without using gloves.”
Prisoners there have lodged an urgent motion against the DCS over the violation of Covid-19 regulations.
Inmates at Zonderwater Correctional Services in Cullinan, east of Pretoria, also claim officials are “covering up” the number of positive cases.
“I’ve seen inmates burn to death here and nothing is done about it. One recent death I can recall is an inmate injecting himself with sanitiser,” said inmate Jonas Tshabalala*.
“I’m sure you never heard anything about that before.
“The head of the prison said to me in person in April that there is no coronavirus in both centres, which I didn’t believe because one official was already showing symptoms. Now that five inmates tested positive, he claims it’s a mystery of how they were infected.”
Tshabalala said the threat of Covid-19 is a “ticking time bomb”.
Inmates have been on lockdown since their arrest.
“We should have never had prison outbreaks if proper precautions were taken with officials as they did with us by stopping our visits. The reason was to prevent the virus from coming in, forgetting that officials visit us everyday from outside.
“We want officials living in their private homes only to escort us and not to come into our sections and officials living in barracks to be the ones coming in.”
Inmates, he said, wanted to manufacture PPEs to assist in shortages.
“Since we are the cheapest labour, this will save in tender fraud and mismanagement of funds.”
* Thandeka Dube, who is awaiting trial, said conditions in the women’s prison where she is being held have worsened under Covid-19.
“Covid-19 rules cannot be practised as there is overcrowding in almost all cells.
“They do not provide basic cleaning materials and no sanitiser is readily available for offenders. All we get is a messy bar of sunlight soap, which is allocated per offender for an entire month,” she said.
“We were grateful when the prison stated they will supply toiletries at the prison shop. However, there was no soap we could buy with our own money. Masks are worn as and when offenders feel and not every offender has a mask.”
Officials wear masks but remove them and “still conduct searching with no masks and gloves”, she said.
“It is a great concern as we do not leave the premises so the only way of the virus entering is via officials and the unscreened new offenders who are brought into our section.
“We are helpless.”
While several inmates have tested positive, she said, proper measures to clean the prison have not been followed.
“Someone was diagnosed with the virus from awaiting trial and was taken to Baragwanath hospital as well as an official from the hospital section. The whole of the lifers section is also under quarantine as there was one person found positive there and a mother and baby were found positive.
“The hospital section was only partially fumigated where the sister was found to be positive with coronavirus. Her office wasn’t fumigated and neither were the inmates who worked with her at the hospital cells tested.”
The DCS said it was doing all it can to ensure the safety of inmates as well as prison officials, including screening at all its centres. Supplies are being provided continuously for inmates and officials.
“Improving personal and environmental hygiene, provision of personal protective 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.”
Nxumalo rubbished claims that the DCS is covering up the number of Covid-19 cases in prisons.
“No institution can hide positive cases as these are reported directly to the Department of Health by the labs.”
* Not their real names.