Female prisoner dies from COVID-19
A view of the South Camp Adult Correctional Facility where a female inmate died from COVID-19. (Photo: Karl Mclarty)

THE Ministry of Health and the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) are facing strong criticisms following confirmation yesterday that an inmate of the South Camp Adult Correctional Facility has died from COVID-19.

But minister without portfolio in the Ministry of National Security Matthew Samuda, who has oversight responsibility for the DCS, has described the criticisms as incredulous and unfair.

“Allow me to extend condolences to the family and friends of the inmate who has passed. But to be clear, she would not fit into the category that anyone would have called for release. She was serving either year one or year two of a 17-year sentence for causing grievous bodily harm,” said Samuda.

“The facts are that so far the DCS has managed the COVID pandemic very well. The fact is that we have stuck with all the guidelines issued by the international health agencies and we have been constantly reviewed by the Ministry of Health.

“The infections, the rate of spread and even the death rate in our facilities has been much lower than many of our neighbours in Central and North America. We continue to stick to the protocols and we meet every Thursday morning to look at resources and ensure that they are deployed to bring about the best results and we ensure that we stick to our responsibility and our duty of care,” added Samuda.

He noted that Jamaica is facing the community spread of the virus and argued that correctional facilities are not immune to what is happening in the rest of Jamaica.

“Our facilities do not exist in a bubble, as much as we do our best to limit external interactions. As we have said, we will have occasional outbreaks and we will stick to the protocols to keep our inmates safe,” declared Samuda, who spoke with the Jamaica Observer following the release yesterday afternoon of a statement in which the DCS confirmed the death of an inmate of the female correctional institution on Tuesday.

According to the DCS, the woman, whose name is being withheld, was admitted to the Kingston Public Hospital after being hospitalised with COVID-19 symptoms on Friday, February 19.

“INDECOM has been informed of this development and the inmate's next of kin have been contacted,” said the DCS as it also confirmed that another inmate of the facility was admitted to hospital yesterday with symptoms of COVID–19.

“Updates will be made to the department's communications channels and via this medium as they become available,” said the DCS, whose COVID-19 dashboard yesterday showed that 200 positive cases of the virus have been confirmed so far in the island's prisons.

The dashboard showed 42 active cases among inmates and wards yesterday and 26 active cases among staff. Just over 740 inmates and wards have already been subject of COVID testing and 346 staff members.

The news of the death sparked a backlash from the lobby group Stand Up for Jamaica (SUFJ), which has long warned about the danger of COVID-19 in the prisons.

“The most heartbreaking thing about this incident is that it could have been avoided if the Ministry of National Security had implemented the things it said it would have done,” said SUFJ head Maria Carla Gullotta

“Our constant advocacy and alarm about the COVID-19 prison cluster has fallen on deaf ears. We have consistently called for the release of low-risk inmates and for several steps to the taken to address the impact of COVID-19 on what was already an overcrowded and under-resourced correctional system.

“We did not have to reach this point where an inmate has died causing fear and panic to grip the rest of the inmate population,” declared Gullotta in a release.

She charged that the COVID-19 numbers in Jamaica's correctional facilities have been exacerbated by the fact Samuda has not followed through on his public statements to release the most vulnerable and those living with comorbidities.

Gullotta also chided Samuda for what she said was his failure to carry out his promise to improve care for bedridden and mentally ill inmates and to implement proposals to address inmates deemed unfit to plead.

“These matters need to be addressed urgently so that we do not have another unnecessary COVID-19 death within our correctional facilities,” declared Gullotta.

But in response, Samuda underscored that it was never indicated as Government policy that any inmates would be released early because of the pandemic.

“Whereas I have great respect for the work of Ms Gullotta and her organisation's efforts in the area of human rights, we will have agree to disagree this time around and I think it is extremely unhelpful to the discussions on the projects and the plans that we are working on to bring about better rehabilitation results in our facilities,” said Samuda.

He added that while there is a programme to relocate bedridden inmates this will occur in the new fiscal year.

According to Samuda, while this is not related to COVID, the pandemic has pushed the Government to move faster to provide these inmates with a a better level of care.

Up to yesterday Jamaica had recorded 406 deaths related to COVID-19 with 8,292 active cases and 268 people hospitalised.

Of those hospitalised, the Ministry of Health described 35 as moderately ill and 20 critically ill.

BY ARTHUR HALL Editor-at-Large halla@jamaicaobserver.com

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