Correctional Services workers have threatened to strike from Monday over an alleged lack of Covid-19 protection from the government. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi African News Agency (ANA)
Correctional Services workers have threatened to strike from Monday over an alleged lack of Covid-19 protection from the government. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi African News Agency (ANA)

Prisoners may be left vulnerable as warders threaten to strike

By Khaya Koko Time of article published Mar 26, 2020

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Johannesburg - Prisoners could be left vulnerable during the 21-day national lockdown as angry warders in fear of their lives threaten strike action over an alleged lack of protection from coronavirus.

This comes as prisoners have also threatened to go on hunger strike from midnight as inmates who spoke to The Star, both from male and female correctional facilities, slammed the lack of testing and preventative measures given to them to combat the deadly virus.

South Africa has about 240 prison facilities with a population of more than 154200 inmates, including thousands of warders.

More than a dozen prison warders, whose identities will be protected, from across the country told The Star that they were made to work for almost two weeks without any screening, sanitisers or other precautions to combat the coronavirus.

The warders asserted that nothing has been done since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster two weeks ago, and the 21-day national lockdown announced on Monday which begins at midnight.

This despite the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) compiling a confidential operational plan for its employees that The Star has seen and which includes measures to protect workers and inmates.

The operational plan, which was signed by prisons commissioner Arthur Fraser, calls for sanitisation of cells, reception areas and security equipment while assigning an official to sanitise employees, inmates and other visitors.

None of the warders that The Star spoke to have seen the plan.

“Every day, warders go in and out of centres without any screening done. Shame, none of the inmates have been screened to date. We will go on strike from Monday and we'll see who will guard violent inmates,” said a warder from a Gauteng maximum security prison.

The warder's views were echoed by a furious colleague in Port Elizabeth, who asked why awaiting-trial prisoners were still admitted to the city's centre without screening or sanitisation.

“Also, President Ramaphosa said there must be no visits to prison, but here in PE we’re continuing with no safety equipment and I’m so * ****d off,” the warder stated.

A female prisoner in a Gauteng maximum security prison said that although she knew she wronged society through an armed robbery, she was also human and had constitutional rights for her health to be protected.

“The government claims there are no Covid-19 cases in our facility, but no testing or screenings have been done. So we’re pushing ahead with our national hunger strike.”

The Star has seen a communique sent to at least 12 prisons to observe the hunger strike until they're protected.

In a statement to The Star, the department asked “not to be sidetracked by theatricals”, saying a security plan was in place and it was “monitoring the situation”. It said facilities would function, but certain activities such as visitations would be suspended.

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

“Containment and treatment measures will be activated in the event of a staff member or inmate population contracting the virus. It will be important that immediate steps are taken to prevent other officials, inmates and stakeholders from being exposed to further infections. These will include isolation of the presumptive cases, quarantine and referrals of the confirmed cases to the designated provincial hospitals for further treatment,” the department said.

But the warders, on being shown this response, all claimed that the department was lying, which would lead to the intensification of the strike.

The Public Servants Association said it was concerned that severely understaffed correctional centres were not adequately prepared for a Covid-19 outbreak.

“Members at various centres have indicated that almost two weeks since South Africa's first confirmed case of Covid-19, correctional centres do not have adequate gloves, masks and hand sanitisers.

“With the DCS understaffed by almost 16000 officials, an outbreak in correctional centres will have catastrophic consequences for both officials and inmates.”

It also said it was in dispute with DCS on staff shortages.

* Additional reporting by Malibongwe Maqhina

The Star

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