Prison guards sanitise the exterior of a van to transport inmates at the female section of the Johannesburg Correctional Centre also known as Sun City Prison, South Africa, on April 8, 2020. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP
Prison guards sanitise the exterior of a van to transport inmates at the female section of the Johannesburg Correctional Centre also known as Sun City Prison, South Africa, on April 8, 2020. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

The department of correctional services has started rolling out  a mass screening programme in prisons for Covid-19 days after the first correctional services official tested positive for the virus.

While the number of people who have tested positive in SA has been going up each day, the reality of a positive case in correctional services hit earlier this week when the official tested positive on Monday.

The official worked at the East London correctional centre, the department’s spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said. The infected official was in a stable condition in hospital and all those who came into contact with her had been asked to self-isolate while waiting for testing.

Nxumalo said the main aim of the plan was to prevent the spread of the virus in severely overcrowded prisons. Plans are in place to quarantine prisoners if the disease spreads to the general prison population.

The plan by correctional services has moved from the prevention and awareness phase to that of containment and treatment.

Justice minister Ronald Lamola on Wednesday launched a mass screening campaign in Johannesburg which formed part of efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in all correctional centres and remand detention facilities in SA.

One of the first measures taken at prisons when the state of disaster was declared was to ban people from visiting inmates.  

Nxumalo said there has been continuous engagement with officials and inmates.

As part of the contingency plans, Nxumalo said correctional facilities have been identified in the different areas in SA where prisoners infected with the virus can be quarantined away from the general inmate population.

The department has also bought mobile quarantine sites to temporarily house infected people while waiting to be transported to outside hospitals.

According to the plan, correctional services employees working at the department’s head office will be redeployed to other facilities if a large number of officials became infected.

But for the moment the situation in terms of overcrowding, which is a problem at the large prisons in the metropolitan areas, has been partially mitigated through the remission of sentences announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2019.

The remission saw thousands of inmates released last year.

The regulations gazetted for the state of disaster which says offenders accused of petty crimes must be released and warned to appear in court later, has helped alleviate the overcrowding pressure.

In addition to prohibiting visitors to the prisons, Nxumalo says new inmates have been isolated for 14 days before they are allowed to become part of the general population.

He said the serious offenders were less at risk as they were held in maximum security units and are in single cells.

Nxumalo said the department was not prepared to release prisoners to curb the spread of the virus.

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