KAMPALA – The news that Uganda has already recorded the first Covid-19 case in prisons is an issue that requires urgent attention.
The prisons spokesperson, Frank Baine, while addressing the press on 10 May, said “I am here to inform you that on Monday, the suspect was in isolation at our centre in Kaiti in Namutumba district, Eastern Uganda. But by close of business on Monday, results came, and we found him positive,”
However, while the one case tested positive for Covid-19 after testing may seem negligible, the way our prisons are crowded and the manner in which prisoners and inmates are transported in these marooned trucks, shows that prisons can easily spread the disease and inmates are very vulnerable.
It should be noted that Uganda’s prison facilities have always been a ticking time bomb for communicable diseases, with cholera and typhoid secretly killing dozens of inmates every year and therefore prisons, police cells and remand homes provide ideal incubation conditions ripe for the rapid spread of Covid-19.
The government now faces the biggest task of preventing an explosion of the Covid-19 in prisons, police cells and remand homes across the country.
A 2013 report by the International Centre for Prison Studies shows that Uganda is ninth among the top 10 countries with most overcrowded prisons in the world.
The report adds that the position makes Uganda prisons, which have over 38,000 inmates instead of the recommended 15,000, the most congested in the East African region.
Although after the outbreak of Covid-19, the Uganda Prisons Service halted visits to prisoners from members of the public, this does not address crowding within the prisons.
As of September 2018, the occupancy rate within Uganda prisons stood at 315.4 percent, this means that to save inmates and limit the spread of Covid-19, government besides limiting open court hearing should also ensure prisons are not crowded and prisoners are not transported in crowded vehicles like animals being transported to the slaughterhouse.
Several media outlets have written about this but the government’s statements and actions, including the practice direction issued by the Judiciary, have omitted to address the issue that prisons and police cells are high-risk environments for transmission of diseases.
Records at prisons also show the staff-to-prisoner ratio is estimated at one staff to seven prisoners; as the Covid-19 situation escalates, there is a need for more restrictive measures to be imposed to ensure the prisoners/inmates are treated as human beings who have human rights.
We ought to ensure not only the security but also the health, safety and human dignity of people deprived of their liberty at all times, irrespective of any state of emergency.
I, therefore, urge the government and the prisons authorities to bear in mind that the one Covid-19 positive case in prison is an isolated one but there are more cases in the waiting especially from the police cells across the country.
It is good that the government has developed and carried out a robust response by prioritising hand washing facilities and encouraging individuals to self-isolate as a key part of tackling the virus.
But it be noted that there is a particularly higher likelihood of the virus spreading rapidly when suspected criminals are in proximity to police and prison trucks being transported to the cells.
Although most of the over 15,000 prison officers are housed in prisons together with their families and can move in and out, should any of the staff or their families pick up the virus elsewhere, it could easily be introduced into a prison, leading to an outburst.
While social distancing and hygiene are being advanced by the government and scientists as the only sure ways of breaking the Covid-19 transmission chain, they seem to be non-existent in the country’s 129 prisons.
Interestingly, one will find our prison staff and police sitting on the same crowded vehicles putting their lives in danger of being infected by Covid-19 too.
With many people entering and leaving detention centres every year, the threat of COVID-19 for people in prisons is very real.
In the Uganda’s overcrowded, dilapidated and underfunded prisons, police cells and detention centres, physical distancing is not a solution and in situations where close confinement, shared facilities and spaces and poor hygiene are commonplace, inmates and prison staff are living in constant fear of the ticking COVID-19 time bomb.
I am not a prison nor a medical expert but I would like to suggest that: with Covid-19, congestion in prisons calls for implementation of alternative sentences, expansion of prison structures and construction of new ones.
And the government should develop emergency multidisciplinary task forces that assess people for suitability for release. This means, having an access-to-health-care plan on the outside [and] having a home or at least a non-overcrowded institution, like a halfway house where they can practice social distancing and follow local shelter-in-place mandates.
Government should also embark on reducing the prison populations because reducing the overall patient population means that medical professionals inside prisons and jails can more efficiently spread their clinical services and physical distance among the remaining population.
We could also restrict our prison staff, police staff and the remand home staff from travelling on the same vehicle with crowded prisoners without personal protection equipment like gloves and face masks, etc.
Lastly, government should create physical distancing plans for the people who remain; develop many communities where basically we have eight-to-10-person groups that almost function like a household, and there’s correctional staff that are specifically assigned to that group and having this group allows officials to identify and isolate and then immediately quarantine a small group if there is a confirmed case, so they can keep the rest of the prison moving and not locked down.
The writer, David Mafabi is a Ugandan veteran journalist