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Prisoners threaten to strip and go hungry to be ‘protected’ from COVID-19

Several prisoners are sounding alarms over what they say is a lack of oversight in dealing with the virus within the correctional services centres.

 FILE: Inmates wait inside Leeuwkop Correctional Facility. Picture: EWN.

JOHANNESBURG – The Department of Correctional Services is pushing back against claims by some prisoners that they are not being protected from COVID-19 while behind bars.

Several prisoners are n Monday sounding alarms over what they say was a lack of oversight in dealing with the virus within the correctional services centres.

They have threatened to go on a hunger strike until efforts are stepped-up to protect them from contracting the disease.

Some prisoners say they were still in the dark about how authorities planned to clamp down on any outbreak of COVID-19 in the country’s jails.

An inmate, known as ‘Commander’, claims not enough has been communicated about the handling of the pandemic.

“As I speak to you, no one in Leeuwkop [prison] has been tested whether they are carrying this infection.”

Golden Miles Bhudhu, who heads the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (SAPOHR), said his organisation had called on prisoners to skip some meals -- "a passive hunger strike" -- to demand that inmates be freed to minimise viral spread.

SAPOHR are calling for the release of low-risk prisoners such as those who are terminally ill, non-violent first-time offenders and prisoners aged over 60 years, among others.

"In crowded, unhygienic and filthy cells, the spread of this virus presents a very serious threat," the group said.

"Our prisons are not only overcrowded, they are chronically overcrowded and remain breeding grounds for the virus," it said.

But the department is having none of it.

Spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said: “They want to create a very grim picture so that they can argue that inmates can be released in [large] numbers – and we are saying that would be irresponsible.”

In a texted response to AFP, the Department of Correctional Services accused Bhudu of "instigating inmates to revolt against the state".

"This is something totally irresponsible and reckless. And there is no need for such," Nxumalo said.

"The state will not simply open the gates for inmates to walk out. Such will be catastrophic for the country," said Nxumalo. "Offenders have been removed from society for a reason".

He said the government had a solid plan to prevent the outbreak of the coronavirus at prisons.

"Out of 243 centres, there is only one centre where inmates have contracted the virus," he said.

The prisoners have threatened to go on a hunger strike, and even take off their clothes until they feel safe.

South Africa has around 160,000 inmates at 243 jails, according to official figures, although data on overcrowding is not available.

So far, the country has detected 99 cases of coronavirus in its prison system.

These comprise 56 inmates at a jail in East London in the south of the country, while the remainder are prison employees, most of whom work at that facility, plus several others at three other sites.

The health authorities have recorded a total of 3,158 infections in South Africa, the highest in the continent, including 54 deaths.