‘Breaking out’ COVID-19 from Ghana’s prisons

The year is obviously not 2005. The setting is not the fictional Fox River State maximum-security prison in the popular Prison Break TV Series in which a man schemes to break out his locked-up brother.

 It is 2022; two years after the COVID-19 virus invaded the world including Ghana’s prisons, where authorities are trying to ‘break out’ the virus through various means including ‘firing’ (administering) COVID-19 shots.

It has not been a smooth operation as some inmates, prison staff and their dependents are still unvaccinated due to factors including slowed down vaccination exercise and vaccine hesitancy.

Prison condition

Crowded places, confined spaces with poor ventilation, and close-contact settings, christened ‘the 3 Cs’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO) describe the favourable environment for the easier spread of COVID-19 virus.

Even before Ghana recorded its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020, inmates and prison staff, like their counterparts across the world, were at risk of infectious diseases.  COVID-19 only worsened their plight.

In the “2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Ghana” released by the U.S. Department of State in April this year, Ghana’s Prison /detention Centre conditions  are described as, “generally harsh and sometimes life-threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, lack of medical care, physical abuse, and food shortages.”

The report said as of September last year, the Ghana Prisons Service reported prison overcrowding figure stood at 135 per cent of capacity, with a prison population of 13,480 compared to a total prison capacity of 9,945 inmates, a 20 per cent reduction in overcrowding from 2019.

The data only affirmed the issue of overcrowding which has, over the years, become a subject of media reports with various programmes being undertaken by the government, to decongest prisons.

An ex-convict recounts

Kofi Nti (pseudonym) is an ex-convict. He finished serving his term last year.  He recounts that the news of the outbreak of COVID-19 sent shivers down the spines of inmates because they knew the condition there was ripe for the virus to fester and possibly kill them, especially those with underlying conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer.

“It was a scary moment; scarier than the day I was sentenced. I thought God was punishing me double for my sins. We slept virtually skin to skin, thus, social distance was going to be virtually impossible, but we had no choice but to await our fate. If someone coughed, my heart beat faster.

“I must confess the prison wardens tried their best to create some space. They educated us on the virus to allay our fears. Although the vaccination’s side effects were painful, it was a better experience than getting the virus. I do not know how I survived the virus in the prisons, but I thank God for my life”, he said.

 Asked if he saw or heard the virus killed someone in the prison and that their bodies were disposed of discretely, Mr Nti said, he only heard rumours, but he never witnessed any of such incidents although some inmates were critically ill and were sent to the hospital.

“Most of us heaved sighs of relief when we heard there was medicine [vaccines] that could protect us. I took it [the jab] without thinking twice, but others did not because of the side effects fellow inmates experienced as well as negative comments by some wardens. They said the vaccines were deadlier than the virus itself. I do not regret taking the vaccine”, he said.

Prevention strategy

The Chief Public Relations of the Ghana Prison Service, Chief Superintendent of Prisons (CSP), Mr Courage Atsem, said with the congested nature of prisons and the potential to aid the spread of the virus, the strategy was prevention.

Apart from the safety protocols, including hand washing and the use of face masks, he said, the prisons banned contact visits and received food and other items on behalf of inmates; outdoor activities including labour and farming were suspended as well as group or church-related activities from religious groups.

“This was just so we could limit the tendency of any outbreak. We did that because we knew that once our inmates were already in custody, then it was like they were already quarantined. So, our focus or fear was the external contact,” he said.

In order to ensure the “challenging” COVID-19 protocol of social distancing, CSP Atsemsaid,   seven facilities across the country – whose location he would not name because of security reasons – were designated for new admissions with the intention that in the event of an outbreak, it could be well managed. Also, new inmates were tested for the virus before they were admitted into the facilities.

That was not all. The President granted amnesty to more than 1,000 inmates to reduce congestion therein. A risk communication committee, made up of counsellors and psychologists sensitised both officers and inmates on the pandemic to lower the anxiety and fear among officers and inmates. The courts were advised to be circumspect on the rate at which they sent people to prisons.

“So, the focus was more on prevention. I must say that till today, we have not recorded any in-prison infection of COVID-19. All the cases we have recorded have been imported from outside from new inmates who initially tested negative, but later positive. We have also not recorded any COVID-19-related death in any of our facilities,” he said.

Case count/Vaccination

As of August 16, Ghana’s COVID-17 case count was 168,496out of which 166,952 had recovered or discharged; 1,459 dead, and 85cases active, per updates by the Ghana Health Service (GHS).

For the vaccination, 18,954,667 doses had been administered as of the same date. A total of 11, 335,371 had received 1st dose, representing 49.6 of the 22.9million of the revised vaccination targets. The fully vaccinated figure stood at 8,207,968 (35.9 per cent)

As of July 25, this year, the total prison population stood at 14,718, with 14,570 males and 148 females.

CSP Atsem said since the outbreak of COVID-19, a total of 110 cases had been recorded in the prison community, made up of 56 officers and 54 inmates, virus, all of whom have recovered.

 As of August 1, when this interview was conducted, he said, there were no active cases.

In conjunction with the District Health Directorates, he said, so far, over 70 per cent of inmates (10,299) were vaccinated and over 90 per cent of offices and their dependents were vaccinated.

“For officers, some do not want to take the vaccine because of personal reasons while some inmates had challenges with access to vaccines, a challenge that is being worked on.

“We sensitised and encouraged all to take the jab, but if somebody says for personal reasons, they cannot take, we cannot compel them”, he stated when asked about the issue of hesitancy.

Challenges /restrictions easing

CSP Atsem said with the easing of restrictions across the world, the prison limitations had also been eased including outdoor activities and visits by religious groups especially those who brought foodstuffs and other items.

He said, the congestion made social distancing practically impossible. It also affected farming which was done to supplement the feeding that is provided by the government.

 “Whatever is being done for the larger society should be extended to the prisons as well? If we want to achieve herd immunity, then we should be able to cover all aspects of society including the prisons,” he said.

GHS

The Director of Health Promotion at the Ghana Health Service (GHS), Dr DaCostaAboagye, confirmed CSP Atsem’s assertion that efforts were underway to vaccinate all prisoners and prison staff/dependents.

He said prisons had been prioritised in every vaccination exercise and under the special COVID-19 programme, prison inmates and staff were being vaccinated while the issue of vaccine hesitancy was being addressed through special sensitization interventions.

“There is a plan for the whole country to be vaccinated under the 22. 9 million vaccination targets. This includes the prisoners because they are also Ghanaians. They are not excluded,” he said.

Asked if the prison environment was currently safe, he said, the risk was low because “In general, the risk ratio of COVID-19 in the country is low. The risk ratio cannot be segregated. That does not mean COVID-19 is gone. We must take the jab and continue to observe the protocols.”

WHO

Although COVID-19 vaccines are not a cure to the virus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said getting vaccinated could save one’s life as COVID-19 vaccines provide strong protection against serious illness, hospitalisation and death as well as reduce the spread of the virus.

It, therefore, highly recommends vaccination in prisons because people deprived of their liberty, such as people in prisons and other places of detention, were more vulnerable to the coronavirus given that they live in close proximity to settings nearby and thus may act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of infectious diseases within and beyond prisons and derail all efforts at keeping the virus at bay.

Human rights

Aside from the rights to health of prisoners finding expression in international treaties and conventions including United Nations General Assembly’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ghana Prisons Service Act Section 1 (1) says “It shall be the duty of the Prisons Service to ensure the safe custody and welfare of prisoners…”

It, therefore, behooves prison and health authorities to do all they can to ‘break out COVID-19 from the prisons.

BY JONATHAN DONKOR

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