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Prisons’ Covid-19 nightmare

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  •  as 47 out 60 inmates test positive for deadly virus in Qacha’s Nek

Mohalenyane Phakela

THE raging Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the country’s prisons. This after revelations by the Lesotho Correctional Service (LCS) authorities that 47 out of 60 inmates at its Qacha’s Nek facility had tested positive for the deadly virus a fortnight ago.

This means that about 78 percent of all the Qacha’s Nek inmates are infected at a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that any infection rate of above five percent should be regarded as a major cause for concern. To date, Lesotho has recorded 9804 infections and 210 deaths.

LCS spokesperson, Assistant Superintendent Pheko Ntobane, said all in all, correctional facilities in three out of the country’s 10 districts had recorded Covid-19 cases.

He however, said prison authorities were on top of the situation as they had swiftly moved to contain the situation by quarantining the patients and implementing public health regulations such as social distancing of inmates and improving hygiene in the prisons.

“We started recording Covid-19 cases last December when the country experienced an influx of people returning from South Africa,” Ass-Supt Ntobane told the Lesotho Times this week.

“Some of the returnees were fugitives from justice and therefore had to be jailed.

“All in all, Qacha’s Nek has 60 inmates and of these, 47 tested positive last month. Quthing which has 80 inmates, recorded 17 infections while Mohale’s Hoek which is also housing inmates from Mafeteng, only recorded seven cases.”

Ass-Supt Ntobane said there was no reason to panic because some of the patients had since recovered while others were convalescing in isolation from other inmates.

He said contrary to what was reported in a local weekly last week, they had not recorded any Covid-19 deaths at their Maseru facilities or any other prison.

“We have only recorded infections in three districts. Some of the patients have recovered while others are stable and on their way to full recovery.

“We have not recorded any cases in Maseru and the other six districts. There was a Maseru inmate who died two weeks ago and it was suspected that he had died of Covid-19. However, a post-mortem showed that he died of other health complications and not Covid-19.”

Ass-Supt Ntobane’s revelations are unlikely to reassure inmates and a sceptical nation amid widespread belief that the Covid-19 infections are understated by the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) due to its limited capacity to test for the virus.

Moreover, the country’s prisons are known to be notoriously overcrowded, a situation that enables rapid spread of the disease.

Several high-profile prisoners including former army commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli have filed several unsuccessful court applications for their release on the grounds that the prisons are filthy, overcrowded and therefore unfit for human habitation.

They said three prisoners were made to share a single blanket thus exposing them to killer diseases such as Tuberculosis. They said as a result of the congestion and unhygienic conditions, diseases were prevalent in the prisons.

In his affidavit, one of Lt-Gen Kamoli’s fellow inmates, Lance Corporal Leutsoa Motsieloa, alleged that “the holding cells at Lesotho Correctional Service (LCS)’s Maseru Central Correctional Institution (MCCI) are overcrowded, unhygienic and filthy”.

“A cell is sometimes flooded with 20 plus inmates and during the night when nature calls, detainees help themselves in the presence of others.

“Furthermore, a mattress meant for one individual is shared by three people and blankets are scarce. Ticks are very dominant in the cells,” Lance Corporal Motsieloa stated in his court papers.

The claims were however, rejected at the time by the LCS inmates’ rehabilitation and welfare officer, Superintendent Limpho Lebitsa, who instead accused Lt-Gen Kamoli and his co-applicants of scandalising the LCS through false allegations to secure their release from prison.

However, Ass Supt Ntobane this week conceded that prisons were congested but said they had taken measures to improve the situation and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“Maseru has the greatest number of inmates but it has not recorded a single Covid-19 case because it has better facilities and is a bit spacious. Even though we have a great challenge of infrastructure across the prisons, we try by all means to isolate the inmates whenever there is a suspected case.

“Since the breakout of Covid-19, we have moved inmates from some of the cells in order to use them as quarantine facilities. We have mini-clinics at all our facilities manned by health professional to treat Covid-19 patients.

“We have come to an agreement with the magistrates’ courts and the police that we should only detain suspects accused of serious crimes while releasing those who are accused of minor offences on bail to reduce congestion.

“We also adhere to public health regulations issued by the government and these include the suspension of prison visits by inmates’ relatives to reduce the chances of spreading infections,” Ass Supt Ntobane said.

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