Correctional Services says it is committed to safe Covid-19 practices in prisons
Unannounced visits to ensure compliance with Covid-19 safety measures at correctional facilities is part of the government's strategy to mitigate risk of infections within the prison system.
This assurance by the ministry of justice and correctional services follows a Sunday Times expose, which stated that the strict protocols showcased to Minister Ronald Lamola on Wednesday were a charade.
When a Sunday Times team visited the jail on Friday, there was no sign of the precautions that greeted Lamola. A journalist entered without being screened for Covid-19 symptoms or having his hands sanitised. Visitors and officials mingled as if there was no risk of contagion. Staff said new inmates were admitted without health screening and were not kept apart from the existing prison population. Even the “hand sanitiser” that was used was really tap water, the newspaper reported.
Commenting on the concern voiced by prison staff at a lack of personal protective equipment, the ministry said the department has ensured bulk distribution of PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) to all centres in the country.
“Previously, centres adopted interim measures while awaiting delivery of essentials and these have been delivered. It should be borne in mind that the lack of PPE is a worldwide challenge and one of the mitigating factors we adopted was to allow centres to share resources while we were awaiting delivery. However, we are committed in line with our strategy to prevent and combat the spread of coronavirus, to provide both officials and offenders with essentials to protect them against the spread of coronavirus. At this stage, there is no shortage of PPEs across correctional centres.”
In response to the query by the Sunday Times why Lamola did not arrange an unannounced visit to the prison to get the true picture of the situation, the ministry said: “The ministry of justice and correctional services on a regular basis conducts unannounced visits to centres and we have also done the same with Johannesburg management area where we inspected all facilities.”
“We gave instructions after the visit on the need to fully adhere to Covid-19 preventative measures ... We will learn from any shortcomings that might be brought to our attention.”
Government said it stood by the measures it had taken so far.
The ministry said SA's approach is focused on prevention, containment/treatment and disaster recovery within prisons.
The department has activated infection prevention control measures at all management areas and has pushed for the sanitisation of reception areas, cells, offices, vehicles and ablution facilities, it added.
“There has been screening at Johannesburg and supplies are being provided continuously, both 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 in Johannesburg.
“ ... 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.”
Commenting on the claim that the sanitiser that was used before and post the minister’s visit is “fake,” the ministry said: "“All essentials we procure need to be at the required standard, in the event the essentials do not meet the required standards, those products are returned to the supplier. Where necessary the department reserves its right for defective products supplied.”
Asked why visitors to the Johannesburg facility were not screened and sanitised, the ministry said an investigation would be instituted.
It elaborated to say that while prison visits have been suspended for the duration of the lockdown, in certain cases, “individuals do visit our centres on exceptional cases”.
“We will never compromise on the safety of offenders and officials and the launch of the screening campaign will ensure huge screening of both offenders and officials as well as those who come to our centres ... All those who come to our centres undergo all the preventative measures. As far as our standard operating procedures entail, it is mandatory for everyone who enters the centre to be screened. The allegations raised would constitute a breach of the operating procedure and is a cause for grave concern.”
The ministry confirmed that the prison’s bail office would not have been closed.
“We have overcrowding, and payment of bail and fines which result in release of prisoners is not prohibited during the lockdown period.”
No positive cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Johannesburg correctional centre.
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