(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — Crammed inside a prison cell is the last place one would want to be as the outbreak of an infectious disease ravages communities and threatens to destabilise the world.
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has spurred governments worldwide to advise their public to maintain social distancing, and to self-quarantine where necessary. However, these measures can hardly be accomplished inside a correctional facility.
As one inmate, who spoke with the Jamaica Observer last week from inside a correctional facility in St Catherine, put it: “It is a scary atmosphere in here right now.”
In a telephone interview the inmate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave his account and observations as to what measures have been put in place to safeguard the health of prisoners and correctional officers.
“Everybody have their own concern and the main concern is that the officers will take it [COVID-19] to us, because we are not going out there and it is not something that is airborne that is going to blow over into the institution.
“If it come inside di prison the officers would be di ones to take it in, and we as inmates have close contact with the officers more,” said the inmate who is presently serving a life sentence for murder.
The prisoner said that on Friday, March 13, the administrators of the facility held a meeting with the inmates to inform them of the measures going forward as the virus spreads locally.
“They had a meeting with us telling us the steps to take to prevent the virus from spreading, and that if any of us have any symptoms or if wi identify anyone with any symptoms, wi must call one of di officers or somebody from the medical team to assess us.
“They told the staff that if they feeling ill or seeing any symptoms, they are not supposed to report to work; dem supposed to just call in sick,” he said.
The inmate said that liquid soap, bleach, disinfectant and tissue, which are normally distributed on a monthly basis, were shared up among inmates last week, but said that the rations were too low and there were no hand sanitisers issued. Wash stands were also installed.
“Dem put in some pipes and some washing cestant [cistern]. And mi see soap, disinfectant and tissue come inside the other day but I don’t see anything like hand sanitiser, and not enough soap is here for everybody,” said the inmate.
He explained that on a regular basis, each prisoner gets one bar of soap and a roll of tissue two times per month, while each section inside the prison gets one gallon of liquid soap, bleach, and disinfectant to share among inmates. The inmate said, however, that the rations are not enough as each section has up to 200 inmates.
“What they issue is a limited amount and it cyah share for di number of inmates on each section. One section carry from 150 to 200 inmates,” said the inmate.
“We have to stretch it. Sometimes when it run, some inmate can only get a cup of bleach or a cup a disinfectant,” he added. “And yet still, there is still nobody at the gate checking the officers before them enter the institution, and inmates and officers are still moving from section to section,” he added.
“Wi bring di concern to di superintendent and the deputy commissioner and they said they would see what they can do about it and put in measures to deploy tests. Wi bring the issue up again about inmates coming in from lock-up and they would get a section to isolate dem, but wi don’t see any of dat yet.
“Nothing is there to check their temperature. Not even dat inside di institution so dat in case somebody have symptoms, dem can run a test. And even if a inmate have symptoms, him nah guh waan guh tell dem say him have a cough or anything like that, so they have to take di precaution to test people,” said the inmate.
These were the main concerns which the inmate outlined, had been brought up in the meeting, and which have not been addressed.
On March 12, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) issued a statement saying that the COVID-19 prevention plan had been activated to “decrease the likelihood of the spread of the virus within correctional facilities islandwide”.
The following Monday, on March 16, all external visits to correctional facilities across Jamaica were suspended for two weeks and phone lines opened to facilitate queries from concerned relatives.
In the statement, commissioner of corrections, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret’d) Gary Rowe, said that “the decision to suspend visits was made in consultation with health officials, external stakeholders, and follows the Government’s decision to halt all public gatherings.
“We wish to advise that we have been preparing for weeks for this eventuality and we are prepared to manage the environment. We will do everything within our power to safeguard the health and wellness of our inmates, wards, and staff,” said Commissioner Rowe.
The safeguarding measures outlined in the statement include: increased supply of sanitisers and hand soaps, for both staff and inmates, and the sanitisation of surface areas.
However, the inmate told the Sunday Observer that generally, and especially now with the threat of COVID-19, the department has not done enough to ensure that cells and other quarters are properly sanitised.
The inmate highlighted the issue of correctional officers, for example, using the same gloves to search the inmates’ cells and handle food.
“This coronavirus ting a guh round and dem nuh put nuh method fi di inmate dem down here or the warder dem. Search team still a come down here and dem a leave from one prison to the other. And is the same dirty boot dem a wear from prison to di other, and is it dem a wear guh inna yuh cell,” said the inmate.
“Di last search was last Wednesday. Wi don’t have any more search from dat. But di problem we have is dat when they come to search they throw out all of your stuff, including clothes and food, everything, and drop it on di dirty ground dat dem a walk pon, and sometimes you have up to three inmates in a cell,” he added.
“After dem finish search, dem lock you down so you don’t get di time to clean back yuh cell. So there is a lot of bacteria and germs now. Sometimes it is the same gloves they use to search, is the same gloves they use to touch your food.”
The COVID-19 outbreak has made these concerns even more pressing, now that the issue of sanitisation is foremost in the public’s consciousness. Recently, at the Tamarind Farm Adult Correctional Centre, a section of which hosts detainees under the state of emergency that falls directly under the management of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, there were reports of an outbreak of tuberculosis and scabies among the detainees.
The general health of prisoners is a matter that is often under scrutiny, with the lack of proper dieting and poor sanitation being some of the issues in contention.
The inmate went on to share that recently an inmate died inside the facility — the cause of which is still unknown to fellow inmates.
“One of di inmate took sick on Saturday and they bring him to the doctor at Spanish Town Hospital, and few hours later they bring him back. Don’t know why, but that person end up dead in him cell over the number one block.
“Wi don’t hear nothing about it, no information was passed on to us; wi don’t hear nothing on the news. But wi know that he was vomiting and feeling pain,” he said, highlighting also the proximity between cooking and toilet facilities.
“Di kitchen is surrounded by three toilet facilities — two for di inmates and one for di officers. Inspectors come in here and see it and nothing is done about it. Even now they are trying to fix a sewage system that is giving them a hell of a problem for a long time. Even officers have complained about it,” said the inmate.
“Since the coronavirus, Sunday they get a truck to come and pump out the pit to flush the system,” he added.
On the other hand, however, the inmate conceded that some measures were put in place, including the clearing of a section inside the prison for quarantine purposes.
“I have to give dem thumbs up because they are making preparations for quarantine. They are about to clear a section for inmates coming in from jail or those who go to court and coming back. And since the coronavirus, I would say they put in some effort to try to remove the garbage faster and trying to get certain things up like washstands.
“But I still think they need to put in measures at the gate to get the officers tested before them come inside the prison,” he stated.