St Albans inmates on prolonged hunger strike over alleged beatings and growing Covid-19 concerns
St Albans prison is a powder keg waiting to go off as the number of Covid-19 cases explodes and prisoners embark on a hunger strike amid alleged serious human rights abuses.
The view was expressed by a number of warders and prisoners on Monday who said the situation was a nightmare.
One prison warder, who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said he did not believe the correctional services department was being transparent about the number of staff infected with Covid-19 or the ever-increasing infection rate among prisoners.
He said nine awaiting-trial inmates who had been distributing food to the prisoners had tested positive.
Describing the situation as a ticking time-bomb, the warder said there were also concerns that the inmates were not being properly sanitised or screened.
An inmate told The Herald that the overcrowded cells and lack of proper sanitation was a disaster waiting to happen.
“Ever since we saw on the news and on the radio that there is Covid, we are yet to receive sanitisers or masks in the cells.
“The only people who have masks are the wardens and inmates who were on the textiles side ... they [inmates] used old T-shirts and pants which, too, is futile because we are too full in the cells.
“All we are asking for is that there is an awareness campaign about the disease and that the management is open to us about who has the virus so we can to protect ourselves,” he said.
The inmate said the prison’s hospital had been closed, with the nurses refusing to work as they feared the virus.
“There are three guys that tested positive as they had been in contact with one of the staff members, no-one in the entire St Albans knows where those guys are,” he said.
“This management is, however, not being honest about these cases too.”
Correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo would not give details on the exact number of warders or inmates who had tested positive, saying: “We do not provide stats per centre due to extreme stigmatisation that our officials have been subjected to, especially in the Eastern Cape.”
However, he said that as of Sunday, 601 Eastern Cape prison officials had tested positive and 898 inmates.
Six inmates and five officials had died.
Another inmate said the prisoners were scared as they interacted closely with the warders, with no-one knowing who had contracted the virus.
Those warders could also unknowingly take the virus into the communities in which they lived, he said.
The inmates and the warder all raised concerns that social-distancing was near-impossible, the health care was not up to standard and the screening subpar.
When asked about the alleged lack of sanitiser or soap, Nxumalo said: “It’s impossible. We have more than enough stock that we even monitor as head office.”
At the same time as concerns over the virus are increasing, inmates in the maximum security section said they had gone on a hunger strike, alleging that they were being brutally beaten by members of a national task team sent to the prison to quell uprisings.
In February, a prisoner died when he had to be forcefully restrained after he attacked and stabbed an official about seven times.
According to the two maximum security section inmates, a number of the prisoners had been severely beaten.
One of them, who identified himself only as Jason, said the situation had become so dire that the inmates were afraid to leave their cells.
“We know we broke the law to get here, but I do not remember any magistrate ever saying we must receive such severe treatment,” Jason said.
He said prisoners in the maximum security section had embarked on the hunger strike late last week and would keep it going until their concerns were addressed at a national level.
Jason also brought up concerns of sanitation in the prison, saying that the prisoners were now being denied care packages sent by family members.
“We don’t have things to wash with here in the prison.
“The prison doesn’t supply us with soap or sanitisers,” he said.
He also alleged that a prisoner had been beaten so badly on his heels that he could not walk for four days.
Another maximum security inmate, who identified himself as Andile, alleged that prisoners were being beaten in the phone booths.
He claimed there were a number of inmates who wanted to open cases against their alleged abusers but their pleas for help were ignored.
“The normal warders, who wear brown, are wanting to help us but if they [national task team members] continue with beating us we are going to get angry,” Andile said, pointing out that the task team members wore black.
Another inmate, in medium B, said he had heard about the hunger strike.
“The situation is totally unacceptable for the inmates but also the [correctional services] members, especially with Covid,” the inmate said.
Several photographs, all with June date stamps on them, were sent to The Herald.
They included pictures of prisoners with gashes to the head or severe bruising.
Some photographs were too graphic to use.
Asked why inmates had not laid complaints with the Human Rights Commission or alerted their legal representatives, Jason said they could not do this as visits were not allowed.
However, many of the inmates are in possession of cellphones.
Another prison warder, who also did not want to be named, said the situation was a total violation of human rights.
“Inmates want their rights to be [respected] so they have embarked on the hunger strike.
“The national task team has been challenging people’s rights and not all of the complaints have been resolved,” the warder said.
Another maximum security section inmate claimed that more than 2,000 prisoners did not eat on Monday as they continued the hunger strike due to constant beatings they were allegedly subjected to.
He alleged that a 72-year-old prisoner was among those who had been beaten.
Nxumalo said he was not aware of the hunger strike but that all allegations of abuse had to be investigated.
“Fortunately, SA has oversight structures such as the Judicial Inspectorate, whose responsibility is to ensure that we render services as per the legislation and protect inmates from human rights abuses,” Nxumalo said.
He refused to give any specific details about the national task team deployed to St Albans, saying only: “We do not discuss security details in a public platform as that could leave the department vulnerable.”
He confirmed that visitations remained suspended and, as per the lockdown regulations, people could not bring parcels for inmates.
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