Pietermaritzburg prisoners threaten hunger strike

Inmates feel abandoned as Covid-19 strikes and fear for their lives after two deaths and the on-site hospital closing. They plan protest action.

Inmates at New Prison in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, are threatening to go on a hunger strike if they do not get medical attention following the alleged deaths of two inmates.

Prisoners claim that an inmate presumed to be in his 70s housed in C Section did not wake up on the morning of 17 July 2020. Another inmate was found dead in his bed in H Section the following morning. It is alleged that both men had complained repeatedly of feeling unwell and were apparently not given medical attention.

The cause of the deaths is being investigated, but prisoners are certain the inmates died of Covid-19.

The prison hospital closed its doors more than two weeks ago, apparently after nurses contracted the virus, which means prisoners cannot get medical attention for any ailment, including the coronavirus. 

Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo rubbished the allegations, saying there were no deaths reported over the disputed weekend in KwaZulu-Natal. “There are protocols in terms of dealing with hunger strike issues and at this stage no grievances have been provided to us by inmates,” said Nxumalo.

The department has also been accused of flouting basic regulations to curb the spread of the virus. The prisoners – most of whom are serving lengthy prison sentences for violent crimes – spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity. They previously complained that there was no social distancing in crowded cells, little or no sanitising facilities and poor hygiene.

The department also denied these claims.

Recounting what happened on 17 July, a prisoner serving 15 years for robbery said inmates were confused when warders failed to open the gates for count at 6.30am.

“When they eventually opened, we found out that there had been a problem at C Section. Later we found out that an inmate had died. It was a man in his 70s. They tried to wake him up but he did not wake up.”

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Suddenly there was an influx of prison authorities and police, recalled the man.

“They only opened the cells for the deceased’s cellmates and told them to wait outside while they were busy with him. Later they were moved to a different wing in B4 to get sprayed and tested, but we are not sure if that happened. On Monday they returned to that cell where there was a death.”

The father of three said he feared the worst because more and more inmates were falling ill. “There are warders who are not at work because they tested positive. We are trapped here. We can’t get treatment because the hospital is closed. The prisoner who died pleaded for help and to be taken to the hospital, but they did not take him. They were reckless, and he died.”

In H Section, a prisoner serving 25 years for murder alleged that prisoners were told that if they fell ill, they would not be cared for.

“There is no medical attention and that means you cannot afford to get sick. There was an inmate who died in our section and that man is old enough to be my father. He had been sick for a while, and we were shocked when they said he died.”

The man from a prominent Durban township said curiosity got the better of him, and he went to investigate the rumours. “When I went to see him, he had been covered out of respect. I was too scared to get close because we have heard that you can still get it from a dead person. He was found on his bed in a cell he shares with five or six people.”

Most of the inmates live in fear, says the man.

“We are not okay. I am scared that I could be next. A lot of the inmates have the flu. Some are sleeping all day. Some are complaining of severe headaches and others have scratchy throats. We are ticking time bombs because we are not being looked after, and if they do not do anything about the situation, we are going to go on a hunger strike.”

A 27-year-old serving time for murder and robbery said he will never forget seeing how the man was wrapped and taken out of his cell in a stretcher.

“The corpse was in our section. It took a while for them to clear the scene. They told us to move one side and then wrapped him and placed him in a stretcher. After they removed him. They told us to go back inside.

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“They never deep cleaned or sanitised the cell. They just used water and Jik to mop the floor. They then took all of his belongings and left. I really feel sorry for his family. Our hearts are broken. People are dying and most of the inmates are not okay. I am not okay. I have lost my sense of smell. I cannot taste anything, and I struggle to breathe sometimes.”

He said he would be joining other inmates who intend striking because he strongly believes that most of the inmates already have the coronavirus.

“What hurts the most is that we are locked inside of here, and there are no health workers who come to check on us. We have all accepted that we are going to die here. I know I have done wrong, but we are really scared. They don’t care about us.”

Begging to be heard

Another inmate, a 38-year-old serving time for robbery, pleaded with Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola to hear their plea.

“We are also human beings. We have tried to email the minister about the issue, but we have not heard anything. He will not be happy if we go on a hunger strike. For now, we are still asking nicely because we know that violence never solved anything.

“[Lamola] promised to release some prisoners because we are going to die of corona. We are cramped in here. We are depressed. There are elderly people, and there are people who are on treatment who are not being helped.”

The man claims that they were promised change by 1 August, and it is this deadline they are giving the department to heed to their calls, failing which they will go on a hunger strike.

“We are petrified that more people are going to die. We have called for calm among inmates, but we are not sure how long that is going to last,” said the man.

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Nxumalo said in a community of 149 000 inmates in the country, the department has only had 1 207 active cases. “Surely one must read these numbers and ask if the situation is as critical as some are trying to make it to be.”

Safura Abdool Karim, a lawyer at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Public Health, said there has been a lack of transparency about how many prisoners have been released so far after the government announced it would give 19 000 prisoners early parole. This was aimed at relieving overcrowding in prisons to manage the spread of the coronavirus.

“There is a real need to facilitate the release and improve the conditions of … people awaiting trial. Most trials and criminal proceedings were suspended with the lockdown meaning that many individuals are in a kind of legal limbo with charges pending against them but no movement toward finalisation of their cases.”

In addition, said Karim, “reducing overcrowding is only one way to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Now that action has been taken to reduce the prison population, there is a need for government to improve conditions [in prisons], specifically sanitation and access to clean water. Without this, there will be little possibility of preventing the spread of Covid-19.” 

Prisons across the world

Prisoners in correctional facilities all over the world fear for their lives. In March, the United Nations human rights chief urged countries to protect people held in overcrowded jails. 

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In the United States, Attorney General Bill Barr recommended prisoners over the age of 60 who had not been convicted of violent or sexual crimes and who had underlying medical problems be released. Of the 2.2 million inmates serving time, only about 2 000 qualify. Ethiopia announced it would free more than 4 000 prisoners while Afghanistan plans to let 10 000 detainees go.

In April, the New York Times reported that according to the Bureau of Prisons, 522 of the system’s 146,000 total inmates were moved to home confinement after attorney general Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to prioritise the early release of some prisoners from federal correctional institutions in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio.

In São Paulo, Brazil, an estimated 1 000 prisoners escaped from a facility after prisoners were denied visitors in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. In India, the number of Covid-19 cases across Maharashtra’s prisons is close to 800 and the death toll stands at four. Meanwhile, 281 inmates and 93 prison staff have reportedly recovered. 

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