Public Safety Minister promises action after prison officers stage protest

Prison staff took their grievances to the street on Monday (Photo by Observer’s Kadeem Joseph)
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By Kadeem Joseph 

Officers at the country’s main penal institution Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) are adamant that they “need help instead of promises”, even as the government has pledged to address several of their grievances. 

Minister of Public Safety Steadroy Benjamin made the promise shortly after more than 20 wardens gathered outside the Coronation Road facility, also referred to as “1735”, in a show of frustration on Monday morning.

Among officers’ pressing concerns was a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff who have had to interact with over 30 inmates who have already tested positive for Covid-19 and were being isolated on the premises.

“We need help; we need protective gear, we need uniforms… four years now we don’t get any uniforms. Look at our shoes, we have had to buy them,” one officer said.

Staff told Observer that while they have had many issues for years, the situation has worsened with the advent of the present pandemic and the outbreak of the deadly virus within the walls of the overcrowded facility.

“We are not coping because nobody is coming to address our situation. All they are doing is going on the media and giving false news about this and that is happening in the prison,” one officer explained. “The infected inmates are still here with us, with no one speaking to us about the time for their departure.”

She claimed that while officers who are on yard duty were given PPE suits, they were limited in number and the officers were asked to wash and reuse them, which has raised the ire of the guards.

The corrections officer claimed there had been a donation of these suits to the prison from a US donor, and she questioned why they were not being made available at this time.

“The divisions are small, the passages are small, so the officers and the inmates rub shoulders,” she explained, as her colleagues nodded in agreement. “If an inmate sneezes, an officer catches a cold. That is how close we are in here.”

The officers said they cannot avoid interacting with inmates who are infected because they need to access the bathrooms, as well as recreational time, and must also be fed.

They also blasted the prison administration for a lack of leadership and communication with staff and inmates.

“They haven’t even approached any staff members to plan a strategy for the inmates,” one male officer said.

Another added, “They haven’t even told the inmates what they are going to do to them. They are hearing it like us, over the news.”

Last week, Minister of Health Molwyn Joseph indicated that infected inmates would be moved to retrofitted barracks at the Defence Force plant at Crabb’s Peninsula within days, but the officers contend that the goalposts keep moving.

They also want the government to increase the number of medical personnel that attend to inmates since, they argue, one doctor and two nurses are not enough.

In addition, they are concerned about inmates who are mentally challenged since correctional officers have apparently been injured by them while performing their duties, an issue they said further underscores the need for a mental health expert for HMP. 

“We have bedbugs; we had MRSA; we had some sort of strange pox; up to now we don’t know what it is because the Ministry of Health never came in to check. Officers came down with it and took it home to their families,” a female officer said. “We have had it all, but the public doesn’t hear about it because we, the junior officers, deal with it the best we can.” 

She claimed that the Ministry of Health was supposed to fumigate the premises but that too has not been done. 

The officers said staff are also being pushed beyond their limits with many being asked to work multiple consecutive shifts since several officers have contracted the virus, while others who have underlying conditions are unable to work.

Following the demonstration, Benjamin told Observer that the concerns of the officers are being addressed.

He also indicated that the process of transferring infected inmates from the facility began at 1.30pm on Monday, while the Ministry of Health was expected to provide about 200 pieces of PPE for the officers.

Benjamin also empathised with the officers.

“I want to commend all those officers who have understood their responsibility and have, in fact, been carrying out their duties well,” he said. “If there are persons that believe that their safety is compromised, then clearly, they have a right to demonstrate as they see fit.”

He said the government is doing everything to ensure that the concerns the prison workers raise and “all of their problems will be addressed soonest”.

Benjamin said support will be provided by Defence Force and police personnel in the interim, to alleviate some of the pressure being borne by prison staff.

However, he noted that there are some people who are using the issue to make a political point, which he said is “unfortunate”.

Acting Superintendent of Prisons, Jermaine Anthony, was not available for comment up to press time.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Prison Visiting Committee, Bishop Charlesworth Browne, who said he was not speaking on the body’s behalf, also commended the guards for their hard work, noting instances where they have gone above what is required of them.

“I think that the officers should be further incentivised,” he said. “They are working back-to-back. One of the officers last week told me that he worked right through the day and didn’t even get a chance to have lunch.”

Bishop Browne said issues with water and toilet facilities also need to be addressed, and that there must be concern for the wellbeing of the officers.

He added that he has previously spoken to several officials about the situation at HMP, in the hopes that they will be addressed.

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