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Prison officials fear for their families' lives amid Covid-19 outbreak

Justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola interacts with departmental officials at the Goodwood Correctional Centre on Wednesday.
Justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola interacts with departmental officials at the Goodwood Correctional Centre on Wednesday.
Image: Philani Nombembe

The families of correctional services officials staying at the East London and Port Elizabeth's St Albans prisons fear for the lives of their children, after at least 27 officials and 56 inmates have tested positive for Covid-19.

The department of justice & correctional services has confirmed cases at the two Eastern Cape facilities, and also at the Worcester prison in the Western Cape.

Three officials who stay within the two facilities' houses told Times Select this week that only officials and inmates have been tested, a claim confirmed by the department.

The two facilities have more than 800 single and family houses where officials stay with their families.

“Only officials were tested. Our families were not tested. Some people have refused to be tested and nothing is being done,” one official said.

The number of inmates testing positive for Covid-19 at East London Correctional Centre had increased to 56 cases by Thursday morning, while no inmate has tested positive at St Albans.

“I fear for my children’s lives. The officials who tested positive stay in the same area as us. Some have children and their children play with ours. With the department not assisting us with testing our families, we will just have to wait and see if our children are affected when they show symptoms,” one official said.

At St Albans, the department this week started testing officials who have been in contact with the infected official.

“I’m very afraid. I pray every morning before I go to work. We do not know who the official is who tested positive. We don’t know where he or she worked in the prison. We have no protective clothing. We are just sitting ducks for this virus to infect us,” an official at St Albans said.

The father of three is waiting to be tested as the department started testing officials this week.

Correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said officials who live in the two facilities'  single and married quarters were registered in their system.

“We have tested them and urged that they get their family members' results known to us. Officials who have tested positive but stay with families have been moved to our guest houses to ensure that they don’t spread the virus within the household,” Nxumalo said.

Nxumalo said the department had identified cells to isolate the infected inmates and are busy preparing others.

“Should the identified cells be full, park homes will then be used. Other centres with more space will also be utilised,” Nxumalo said.

The East London facility has more than 2,600 inmates and St Albans has more than 3,000 inmates.

Nxumalo said in East London a total of 211 inmates out of 269 at Medium C section tested negative.

He said health care teams are on site, armed with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), rendering care services to distress cases and monitoring those likely to develop acute respiratory challenges.

“Working together with the department of health and provinces, DCS has a list of hospitals and health care centres where inmates could be transferred in case they require admissions. Appropriate safe escorts will be employed to limit the risk for officials and hospitals receiving inmates in need of care,” Nxumalo said.

He said the department was now splitting out-of-cell time for the distribution of food. “This will mean that units or wings are divided to avoid concentration of inmates and officials in open spaces. This measure does not abolish access to open air which is mandatory for inmates,” he said.

The department said it would still allow inmates to purchase items from the tuck shops, adhering to social distancing protocols.

The Daily Dispatch reported this week that a department of correctional services official based at the East London prison is in critical condition after being rushed to hospital on Tuesday. The woman had been quarantined in a guest house on the prison premises before her condition worsened.

The Dispatch also reported that six members of a Port St Johns family, who attended the same funeral as that of the first DCS official to test positive, have also tested positive for the coronavirus. Fourteen of their relatives are awaiting test results.

There are now 199 positive coronavirus cases in the Eastern Cape and 2,506 in the country. Seven more deaths were announced by health minister Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday night, bringing the total nationally to 34.  

For the past two weeks, Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane and health MEC Sindiswa Gomba have cited the Port St Johns funeral and another in Port Elizabeth as events that spread the virus in the province.

Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union provincial secretary Zamikhaya Skade said the union was working very closely with the department and had been included as part of the committee that is monitoring the situation at both facilities.

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