The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Correctional Services (DCS) is not leaving anything to chance when it comes to preventing the spread of Covid-19 in its facilities.
While visits to New Prison are currently banned, on Tuesday The Witness was allowed to observe some of the strict precautionary measures that have been put in place there.
The prison is one of the department’s biggest facilities with almost 4 000 inmates.
“Everyone who walks through our gates is screened — even our officials are screened and have their temperature checked daily. The cars are also sanitised. Even if you leave for a few minutes, when you come back we will sanitise both the interior and the exterior of your vehicle,” said the department’s regional spokesperson, Thulani Mdluli.
He said while there have been no recorded cases in any of the centres in KZN, the department does not want to risk possible cross-infections taking place. “We’d rather play it safe by being stricter in our precautionary measures than have this virus infiltrating our centres because that could be disastrous.”
Head of correctional services at New Prison, Zekhaya Zimema, said offenders coming to the facility for the first time are quarantined for 14 days where they are screened and tested before joining the general population. “We also have quarantine and self-isolation facilities prepared for our officials should there be suspicions that they’ve come to contact with anyone who might have Covid-19,” he said.
He said visits are not only suspended for inmates but also to the department’s staff that live on the property. The live-in staff are also screened daily.
To mitigate the shortages of masks, Zimema said they have started a programme to produce their own on site so they can be distributed to all inmates.
“We’ve distributed to officials and some of the inmates that work on the grounds and the kitchen but now we want everyone to wear a mask at all times, whether they are in the cells or in the recreational areas.”
The centre has not only limited interactions between inmates from different cells but also between wardens assigned to different sections. This, Zimema said is to prevent the spread in cases where the wardens could be possible carriers of Covid-19.
He said the challenge is with the officials who live outside the facility because he did not know what they got up to when they leave work.
“I haven’t been home to see my family since the lockdown was implemented because I don’t want to infect them or possibly be infected by them only to come back and pass the virus to my colleagues and inmates.”
His sentiment was shared by the inmates’ spokesperson, Maqhawe Mkhize, who said while they are appreciative of all DCS and the New Prison management are doing to protect them from Covid-19, they are worried about the wardens living outside the property.
“We as inmates are no different from those who are quarantined because we don’t go anywhere but the wardens go home to their families and then come back here.
“The government must consider not allowing them to leave the premises. They must live in the staff quarters until we are no longer faced with this epidemic so that they can’t get infected.
“If one of them brings the virus in here it will kill us all.”
He said the government must also consider releasing some of the offenders who have been incarcerated for more than 10 years and are well rehabilitated. This, he said, will create space that will allow for social distancing to happen.
“The big cells are meant to accommodate 19 beds but you find them having to house more than 40 people. There is a serious problem of overcrowding.”
Mkhize said while it hurt them not to see their families while visits are suspended, “protecting our health is a priority right now, so most of us support the government’s decision on this”.
He, however, called for government to find ways for courts to continue operating to deal with their cases during this period, saying some of them had pressing matters pending such as appeals.