By Carl Joseph
All prison visits have been suspended for two weeks as of Monday, amid efforts to stem the coronavirus spread in Antigua.
The announcement came shortly after a meeting of top public safety officials, including Minister of Public Safety, Steadroy Benjamin, Commissioner of Police, Atlee Rodney, and Superintendent of Prisons, Lieutenant-Colonel Eugene Philip.
The practice of family members delivering daily meals to prisoners has also been put on hold. Neither will inmate work groups be allowed outside the prison’s confines, except those who work on its farm.
The aim, according to Benjamin, is to “have proper control of every activity in Her Majesty’s Prison”.
He said a review will be conducted at the end of the two weeks to decide whether or not the special measures need to be extended.
Additionally, Benjamin told Observer, the Chief Magistrate will visit the prison each week to deal with matters relating to inmates on remand.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Prison Visiting Committee, Bishop Charlesworth Browne, was tasked with delivering the news to the inmates and their families on Monday.
He said he told the prison population he was satisfied that the decisions made on Monday were in their “best interest”.
Bishop Browne told Observer that even though he tried his best to convey that the steps being taken were to protect inmates from the potential spread of the virus, many of the prisoners were upset.
He said that delivering the news of the temporary measures was one of his most challenging duties to date, as the prisoners asked pertinent questions which could not be brushed aside.
The bishop said they questioned why their interaction with family and loved ones had to be curtailed, while at the same time they would be forced to interact with prison officers who go back and forth between their homes and the penal institution.
The inmates also spoke of the absence of non-protective clothing for the wardens in charge of their care, and referred to the suspension of visits as “further punishment”.
“Many of them remained uneasy, perturbed and most unsatisfied about the whole situation,” Browne said.
The main issue on the minds of the prisoners, however, was the alleged poor quality and inadequate supply of the prison food provided.
“They’re saying if there is a problem providing for the amount [of inmates] that they are providing for now, what is going to happen when you are now going to be preparing the food for everybody?” Browne relayed.
For now, all prisoners, including those on remand, and those with special diets, will have to partake of the meals prepared in the prison’s kitchen.
“They don’t have confidence in the competency of the kitchen to provide food for them… and there are too many people saying certain things for me to doubt it,” Bishop Browne added.
He noted that inmates with special dietary needs, due to pre-existing medical conditions, expressed the most concern at the decision, as they are among the most vulnerable affected by the two-week change in procedure.