(ROYAL GAZETTE) – A lack of cells has left the prison system at risk of a Covid-19 outbreak, the head of the Prison Officers Association warned yesterday.
Timothy Seon said that an influx of curfew breakers to Westgate prison had filled up cells that would be used for isolation purposes in normal times.
He added that the POA realised that problems created by the coronavirus were new and that the “barometer changes as more information is learnt”.
However, he said: “Ultimately, the concern is getting the personal protective equipment apparatus for officers and a realistic, workable plan to keep the virus out, and early detection and containment if it finds a way behind our walls.
“Presently, we will be rendered incapable at this point housing curfew breakers.”
Mr Seon explained that not all cells were operational and that curfew breakers had stretched capacity. He said: “This poses a problem if there is any Covid-19 outbreak in the facility.
“We simply have no space to accommodate them because of the non-operational cells.”
Mr Seon said that detained curfew breakers were not being tested for the coronavirus.
He added: “This could pose serious ramifications if it gets in our facilities.
“Obviously, this is a major concern for officers.”
Mr Seon said prison officers had no idea who curfew breakers had been in contact with, which presented additional risk.
He added that housing curfew breakers also meant a “more strenuous cleaning regime” after they were released.
Mr Seon said: “While performing our duties and transporting individuals from court to Department of Corrections facilities, officers are having to be resourceful and provide their own mask to protect themselves. This is a grave concern.”
He said that the masks officers used “may not meet specified requirements to be properly protected”.
Mr Seon added: “The Prison Officers Association has a reasonable expectation that as soon as supplies are available, prisons will get what’s necessary to keep themselves and the inmate population safe.”
He said that prison staff had their temperatures taken when they reported for work and that officers had taken “basic general precautions” to prevent the spread of the virus, including using gloves and hand sanitiser.
He added that sanitiser dispensers had been set up inside prisons. Mr Seon said no inmates had tested positive for the virus, as far as he knew.
Wayne Caines, the Minister of National Security, rejected suggestions that there was a “crisis in our correctional facility”.
He explained that there were about 130 inmates at Westgate and 220 cells. He said: “Out of the 220 cells, just under 30 of those are under repair and inoperable.”
He added: “We have the opportunity to have 14 quarantine cells.”
Mr Caines said that people sent to Westgate from Magistrates’ Court were being held in the quarantine cells.
He added that inmates coming back from the hospital were also placed in the quarantine cells “for approximately 14 days to make sure that they are healthy”.
Mr Caines said that Westgate also had four “isolation cells”.
He added that prison officers and inmates had been made aware of the contents of a pandemic plan.
Mr Caines said: “We cannot go into specific details about the entire plan, because there are security concerns around that.”
He added: “We have a rigorous regime around cleaning the prisons.
“We also have rigorous regime around making sure that the officers have enough PPE kit.
“When we need PPE kit, we reach out the Ministry of Health.”
Mr Caines declined to comment on whether any inmates had been tested for the coronavirus.
The minister earlier told The Royal Gazette there had been no early releases of prisoners to help prevent the spread of the virus.
He added: “If the time comes when we have to consider the early release of inmates, we will follow the steps in our pandemic plan.”
Mr Caines said that the plan gave “clear guidance” on what prison staff should do if there was a Covid-19 outbreak in the system.
He added that a contingency plan to deal with an outbreak had been prepared and it was reviewed and updated “as necessary”.
Mr Caines said that officers were outfitted with gloves, face masks and sanitiser.
He continued: “We are following the guidelines from the Department of Health. “
Mr Caines added: “We are continually assessing our levels of stock to ensure that we have an appropriate amount.”
Mr Caines said that temporary electric heaters had been installed to provide Westgate prisoners with hot water and that permanent boilers would be installed after shelter-in-place rules ended.
He added that inmates could shower every day and that their clothing was regularly washed.
Mr Caines said on Tuesday that the Department of Corrections continued to operate “on a reduced regime” and that visits at Westgate were still suspended.
He added visits to other prison service establishments were limited to essential trips only.
Mr Caines said that non-operational staff continued to work from home.
He emphasised: “Staffing levels have not been impacted and corrections staff continue to carry out their duties professionally despite the challenges.”
Mr Caines highlighted that a project by inmates to sew masks for the prison population and staff had earned “favourable feedback, both within and outside our facilities”.
He added: “The intent is to issue the homemade masks in the very near future once they have been completed.”
Mr Caines said that virtual visits for inmates at all prison establishments would start this week.