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‘A death sentence’ - Advocate renews call for release of low-risk prisoners amid COVID-19 outbreak at Tower Street

Published:Sunday | October 4, 2020 | 12:16 AM
The maximum-security Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in downtown Kingston.
The maximum-security Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in downtown Kingston.

Stand Up For Jamaica, a rights group working for years in the local prisons, is expressing outrage at yesterday’s report that 14 new positive COVID-19 cases were recorded at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre within the previous 24 hours.

“We have been asking over and over for the release of low-risk inmates to avoid what is the permanent problem in the prisons, which is overcrowding,” said Carla Gullota, the group’s executive director.

According to the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), of the new cases, two are staff members and 12 are inmates, adding that all the positive test cases were placed in isolation and contact tracing and line listing activities were conducted to curtail the spread in the institution.

Gullota said the national security minister should immediately reconvene a meeting of stakeholders, including the public defender, director of public prosecutions and the chief justice, to apply an urgent fix.

The advocate argued that keeping low-risk prisoners in the unsuitable prisons as well as those convicted on short sentences before the pandemic set in amounts to applying the “death penalty”.

“There are huge numbers of people detained for small crimes and they could just pay the bill and go out, but the justice system is very slow due to the coronavirus. So, there might be somebody who has a sentence of three months and he catches the virus,” said Gullota, noting that Stand Up For Jamaica has plans to deliver 17,000 masks to the DCS shortly.

In a statement, Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of National Security, Matthew Samuda, said, “This development in the institution has occurred despite our roll-out of protocols established by international bodies like the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other benchmark corrective organisations versed in the management of outbreaks within correctional institutions.”

Samuda indicated that the department would be revisiting its tracking measures given the situation and release results of the COVID-19 tests immediately rather than by its twice-weekly modality on its website.

The DCS said the positive cases recorded in correctional centres thus far have been largely asymptomatic. However, the agency said it is mindful that changes in the nature of these cases remain a real possibility.