Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of National Security Matthew Samuda is moving to allay the fears of people who have loved ones or family members in the South Camp Adult Correctional Centre following the discovery of a cluster of COVID-19 cases there.
The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) on Monday reported 36 new positive cases of COVID-19 in the inmate and staff population at the women's prison on Camp Road in St Andrew. Of the new cases confirmed 28 are inmates and eight are staff members.
This prompted the lobby group Stand Up For Jamaica (SUFJ) to express concern about the resurgence of COVID-19 in the island's correctional facilities.
The group argued that immediate steps must be taken to increase adherence to the Ministry of Health and Wellness's COVID-19 protocols within all correctional facilities, while contact between prison inmates and their loved ones should be maintained, wherever possible, through the use of online tools such as Zoom and Skype.
“COVID-19 presents substantial challenges to offender populations. Measures have been, and should continue to be, implemented to reduce disease transmission within prisons. However, these measures are not cost-free and their consequences to mental health should be decreased wherever possible,” said SUFJ.
“The effects of the pandemic are considerable, but they also create opportunities for new, innovative methods of supporting prisoners and for strengthening links between health care, criminal justice, and government agencies with potential long-lasting benefits.”
But Samuda told the Jamaica Observer that the increase in COVID-19 cases in correctional institutions was to be expected, given the community spread of the coronavirus across the island in recent weeks.
“There is no reason to panic. The numbers are concerning but this is not something for us to panic about. When we look at the numbers nationally it was inevitable despite our entry protocols,” said Samuda.
Yesterday, the Ministry of Health and Wellness reported that Jamaica had confirmed a single-day record of 468 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday. This moved the country's total number of positive cases since the first case was confirmed on March 10, 2020 to 19,773. A total of 13,260 people have recovered from the virus, so there are now 6,513 active cases and 378 confirmed deaths, while two deaths were under probe.
For Samuda, the latest numbers underscore the challenge facing the DCS as it tries to prevent the virus from running riot in correctional institutions.
“The DCS has been very good in dealing with COVID-19 by implementing the protocols stipulated by the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], and the Ministry of Health and Wellness, that serve to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” added Samuda as he noted that the correctional facilities did not report their first positive case of COVID-19 for some six months after the virus was detected in Jamaica.
Samuda said last week the DCS hosted a town hall meeting with correctional officers during which several issues, including COVID-19 in the correctional facilities, were discussed.
“In addition, we meet every Thursday morning to look at the protocols that are in place and how they are being implemented. We also do surprise visits to our facilities to look at issues such as the wearing of masks and the operation of the sanitisation stations.
“We know that whatever measures we implement will not stop us from having some cases, but the DCS has done an excellent job so far, and we will continue to ensure that all the measures are in place to restrict the spread of the virus in the correctional facilities,” said Samuda as he argued that some measures, such as the ban on visits, are uncomfortable but necessary.
In the meantime, Dr Donna-Michelle Royer-Powe, the DCS's director of medical services, said the South Camp Adult facility was visited by Dr Strachan-Johnson, senior medical officer for Kingston and St Andrew, and a team from the Public Health Department.
Royer-Powe said the team reviewed the existing COVID-19 protocols in the prison and made recommendations for any improvement that would aid the DCS in managing the spread within the inmate population.
According to Royer-Powe, the recommendations made by the team yesterday, and last week when the first batch of positive cases were recorded at the facility, are in effect.
The DCS said five new cases of COVID-19 were received from tests conducted at the South Camp Adult facility last week, triggering swabs being done for 81 people.
“The department has been consultative in its approach to managing the pandemic within the penal institutions, collaborating with the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the public health departments to conduct testing programmes in centres once any positive cases are detected.
“Currently, there are 39 active inmate cases and 10 staff cases in the department. The DCS remains committed to the safety, health, and wellness of both our staff and inmates under our care during this pandemic,” said Royer-Powe.