Covid-19 in prisons: A disaster

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THE surging numbers of coronavirus (Covid-19)cases in the country’s prisons is a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.

Recent reports that several prisoners and correctional officers at Bulawayo and Grey prisons in Bulawayo tested positive for Covid-19 should send alarm bells to those in authority that more needs to be done for prisons to adhere to strict coronavirus guidelines, which include social distancing.

Unfortunately, without proper bedding, warm blankets, winter garbs and jerseys, the current biting cold will expose more prisoners to the virus.

Those prison correctional officers who have tested positive for the virus pose the greatest challenge as most of them live with their families, away from the prisons; hence the urgent need for wide contact tracing. There is also a growing safety concern as prisons will eventually become epicentres of the coronavirus pandemic because it’s very difficult to maintain social distancing in jail.

While the greater issue is the impact on space availability at local facilities, we urge prison authorities to create a quarantine “boot camp” to keep infected detainees separated from the rest of the population. Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) should provide and ensure that all prisoners wear face masks at all times and get regular sanitisers. Soap should be provided to all prisoners and they should be told to wash their hands at frequent intervals, particularly before eating. This has to be supervised by duty warders.

The recent outbreak means prisoners can no longer take part in usual recreational activities such as using the gym, going to worship or visiting the library. ZPCS should ensure that prisoners who return after court appearance and hospital treatment are properly screened at the main gates.

The distance between the advocate and the prisoner should be respected while both must wear masks during interviews.

The government should also consider decongesting the prisons by releasing those with petty cases, pregnant mothers and the terminally ill. Those who could be released should be screened for medical and health problems to ensure they can be placed in communities.

The inmate-release should be part of wider efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus while also making more room for those who need to be quarantined or isolated. We urge prisons to work closely with public health and government services to put robust contingency plans that prioritise the safety of staff, prisoners and visitors.

It is our hope that going forward, the ZPCS takes the safety and security of its correctional facilities, staff, and incarcerated individuals very seriously.

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