Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons could prove 'catastrophic'

Prisoners' rights are enshrined in the constitution of a democratic South Africa, but the reality behind bars often differs, and Covid-19 outbreaks will add to the burden of challenges.
Prisoners' rights are enshrined in the constitution of a democratic South Africa, but the reality behind bars often differs, and Covid-19 outbreaks will add to the burden of challenges.

The official number of coronavirus infections in the SA prison system is relatively low, but a report has warned of the disaster that could ensue should infections peak.

Earlier this week, the official tally stood at 144 cases, with one official having lost his life to the Covid-19 disease by Monday night.

Singabakho Nxumalo, correctional services spokesperson, said mass screening and testing had made it possible to immediately contain those who tested positive.

According to modelling by epidemiologists, South Africa’s burden of infection is likely to peak around August and September.

For those who are behind bars - about 163,000 people - the rate of infection could be higher than the free population due to prison living conditions.

According to a world report published in The Lancet, “the global prison population is estimated at 11-million” with “at least 124 prisons worldwide exceeding their maximum occupancy rate".

This overcrowding could push up Covid-19 figures.

“Prisoners share toilets, bathrooms, sinks and dining halls. They are mostly sleeping in bunk beds, and in some countries they sleep crammed together on the floor,” according to The Lancet.

“These settings are in no way equipped to deal with an outbreak once it gets in.”

It says finding suitable space for isolation will prove impossible, and the prospect of solitary confinement (which is normally seen as a punishment) will disincentivise prisoners to seek medical help if they are feeling sick. 

Because so many prisoners hail from poorer communities, they already have a higher burden of health issues like diabetes and smoking-related illnesses, and prison food is notoriously lacking in nutrition.

In South Africa, according to statistics presented in a committee meeting by the correctional services late last year, there were 43,000 more inmates than beds in SA prisons, and this issue of overcrowding had dogged the system for two decades.

An example, but not an exception, is the Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility which, according to health monitoring publication Spotlight, currently has 2,908 prisoners but its specified capacity is 1,619.

These are prisoners awaiting trial and are thus theoretically "innocent until proven guilty".

Lukas Muntingh, founder and head of Africa Criminal Justice Reform at the University of the Western Cape, told Spotlight that “social distancing is simply not a possibility in a prison environment and definitely not in one of our large awaiting trial centres, like Pollsmoor or Sun City".

He says a “mass infection” in our prison population could have “catastrophic consequences for the public healthcare system, especially if prisoners suffer serious symptoms and require intensive care".

The bottom line: “Prison hospitals do not have the capacity nor the resources to care for hundreds of sick prisoners.”

Other African countries are faring even worse. According to the world report, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) prison occupancy rate, for example, is estimated at 432% of capacity yet food is budgeted on official capacity.

According to the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, quoted in The Lancet: "At least 60 people died from hunger at Kinshasa’s central prison during the first two months of 2020.”

In Niger, awaiting trial prisoners are given no food at all and must rely on family and friends to bring supplies.

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