St Albans prison a ticking time bomb

OVERCROWDED AND UNHYGIENIC: St Albans prisoners say there is no running water to wash their hands amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak at the correctional facility
OVERCROWDED AND UNHYGIENIC: St Albans prisoners say there is no running water to wash their hands amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak at the correctional facility
Image: ISTOCK

With no running water and new admissions on an almost daily basis, Covid-19 is a ticking time bomb for the thousands of inmates at the St Albans Correctional Centre despite authorities insisting they are doing all they can to prevent the virus from spreading to inmates.

The long-standing problem of overcrowding — with up to 100 inmates in a cell — means the social distancing requirement of up to two metres cannot be adhered to at the prison.

In addition, without sufficient clean running water, prisoners cannot follow  the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of regularly washing hands for at least 20 seconds.

Dr Susan Louw, a haematologist in charge of the National Health Laboratory Service, said: “It takes just one person inside the prisons to contract Covid-19.

“It is a disaster waiting to happen.”

But Louw warned the killer coronavirus was not the only illness inmates needed to be concerned about if they did not have access to water.

“It is a disgrace; it goes against their basic human rights.

“Their worries should go over and above Covid-19 as there are a variety of serious illnesses they can contract as a result.”

Louw stressed, however, that as long as the virus was not brought into the prison, inmates remained safe.

Three prisoners interviewed by Weekend Post this week said they had not been supplied with hand sanitisers and the only precautionary measure they had noted was correctional services officials wearing gloves and masks.

The cells were sprayed with a disinfectant once last week, they claimed.

The names of the prisoners have been withheld for fear of reprisals.

Some detainees have embarked on a hunger strike in a bid to raise attention about the woeful water shortages.

By yesterday afternoon, they insisted they still did not have water despite communication from the department of correctional services that water tankers had been dispatched to the prison.

An awaiting-trial prisoner at Medium A said there were new admissions each day and that, without the court system being fully functional, he feared the overcrowding would intensify due to the backlog.

“I am lucky because I am in a single cell but I have witnessed new admissions every day,” the 47-year-old man said.

He has been in custody at St Albans since 2018.

“At about 10pm [on Wednesday] security opened our cells and brought in buckets of water to flush the toilets.

“Our food is served in plastic containers that are probably not wiped down and I have read that the virus can stay alive on plastic for several hours.

“For four days we have not been able to wash our hands,” he said.

Because all visitations had been suspended in light of the outbreak, family members could not supply them with health care products.

Another inmate said there were 94 other men in his cell, some of whom allegedly had other serious illnesses.

They had embarked on a hunger strike to raise attention and two inmates had been rushed to the prison hospital as a result of dehydration, he said.

“They give us food but they tell us there is no water, so we can’t wash our hands before eating.”

The 31-year-old has been an awaiting-trial prisoner for seven years.

Correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said there had been no positive cases of Covid-19 within the prison system and that all correctional services officials who had travelled outside the country had been told to self-quarantine pending their test results.

Nxumalo also said yesterday that every person entering the facility, including officials and inmates, was screened for signs of the coronavirus in line with guidelines prescribed by the national health department.

“This is done by professional health care workers.

“Should they detect something, they are then able to separate that person immediately pending further testing,” he said.

Nxumalo said the problem with the water had been reported to the department only on Thursday, but there had regularly been water issues at the facility and in the greater Greenbushes area in the past.

Water tankers were immediately arranged, he added.

“The department of correctional services’ approach is focused on prevention, containment, treatment and disaster recovery.

“A greater emphasis has been placed on prevention measures, looking at screening, improving personal and environmental hygiene, provision of personal equipment, sanitation and [decontamination] interventions.”

According to Nxumalo, reception areas, cells, offices, vehicles and ablution facilities would be regularly  sanitised.

He said it was also important for immediate steps to be taken should an inmate or official contract the highly contagious disease to prevent further spread.

“This will include isolation of the presumptive cases, and quarantine and referrals of the confirmed cases to the designated provincial hospital for further treatment.”

“The department recognises the importance of keeping correctional facilities Covid-19 free.”

Human rights lawyer Egon Oswald said because of the intense overcrowding, prisoners needed to be treated as a vulnerable sector when it came to the risks involved in contracting Covid-19.

“The best lesson we can learn is from the past but that does not seem to be the case here [with correctional services]," he said.

“Of particular importance here is the awaiting-trial prisoners, who have not been convicted.

“Yet sometimes their conditions are even worse,” Oswald said.

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