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‘We are living like dogs’ - Inmates enraged as female prison leads COVID-19 caseload; Government says no need for alarm

Published:Sunday | February 28, 2021 | 12:14 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter

Commissioner of Corrections Gary Rowe.
Commissioner of Corrections Gary Rowe.
Matthew Samuda, minister without portfolio in the national security ministry.
Matthew Samuda, minister without portfolio in the national security ministry.

A week before Lorna Lewis lost her life to COVID-19, fellow inmates at the South Camp Adult Correctional Centre tried desperately to raise alarm over what they said was a rapidly developing crisis at the prison.

From secret calls to journalists and hunger strikes, to banging on cell doors to alert warders to ailing cellmates, for some, their efforts to gain public attention while under 24-hour lockdown could have only come from the stilling of an inmate’s heart – God forbid, it was Lewis’.

While they tried – and while Lewis grew sicker and sicker on a prison bed last week – Lt Col Gary Rowe, commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), and his public relations team remained guarded in their responses to questions about the situation at the South Camp facility.

So, too, was a more accessible Matthew Samuda, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of National Security, who continued to reassure the public that things, though challenged, were under control in the island’s prisons.

But even as Samuda embraced that common rhetoric midday last Tuesday, Lewis – who fellow inmates claimed lingered for days in prison unattended as officials awaited results of a second coronavirus test – was taking her last breaths at the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH).


Her fight ended about 3 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23 – five days after she was finally whisked away for care at the public hospital. Lewis, who was said to have comorbidities, is the first inmate to die from the coronavirus in the island.

“We’ve had particular challenges in recent weeks with members of staff being affected by COVID-19 infections,” Samuda told a Gleaner Editors’ Forum hours before news broke of Lewis’ death.

“We don’t exist in a bubble. The level of community spread is well documented and our staff members and correctional officers, though they do their best to protect themselves, their cases have unfortunately risen in recent weeks,” he said when queried about the South Camp Adult Correctional facility, which last week accounted for 100 per cent of new cases detected among inmates at 11 DCS-run locations islandwide.

Sixteen staff members at the South Camp institution also tested positive within the period, compared to eight at the DCS head office and one each at a probation office and at the South Camp Juvenile facility.

Another inmate from the South Camp Adult facility has also been hospitalised, though it is not clear how many others are critically ill there and need more advanced medical care. As it is, however, South Camp remains the hub of active cases, following 742 COVID-19 tests last week.

“I don’t view or classify it as a particular crisis. When we look at the numbers in correctional facilities in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, from a macro-standpoint, we have thus far performed very well,” said Samuda of Jamaica’s situation.

“All of the guidelines and plans that we follow are what we took out of the WHO, PAHO, and CDC recommendations for those who are incarcerated, and we did apply our own standards and our own processes with the Ministry of Health,” he added, dismissing as untrue reports from prisoners reaching The Sunday Gleaner.


In its interim guideline for the management and prevention of COVID-19 transmission in prisons, the WHO (World Health Organisation) recommended a raft of measures to ensure human rights and dignity are upheld in institutions.

In addition to proper social distancing, mask allocation, isolation and access to clean water, medicine and medical care, the world health body noted that: “Adequate measures should be in place to ensure a gender-responsive approach in addressing the COVID-19 emergency in prisons and places of detention, specifically, the need for additional psychological and behavioural support … targeted at women and children.”

WHO continued: “Refined allocation procedures should be considered that would allow people in prison at highest risk of complications or poor outcome to be placed separately from others … that would permit limited single accommodation to remain available to the most vulnerable.”

Last Thursday, inmates painted a different scenario: of tightly packed cells, sneezing inmates, and the grouping of untested individuals among those who had tested negative prior. Here, they say, only the dying is priority as warders themselves are too fearful to act.

“Warder! Warder! Come open the (expletive) place nuh! You nuh see seh she sick. My girl, yuh sick, get up and tell dem nuh,” one inmate blurted in the background, cutting off Phillipa Gentles* and Elaine Richards* as they pleaded for help over a hidden cellular phone.

“Who? They (inmates) are arguing because one of the girls is coughing and nobody don’t come to help her yet. Is pure of this going on in the prison,” said Gentles, whose fraud case has been repeatedly delayed due to the onset of the coronavirus.

“In here, they have to see you taking your last breath before they carry you to the hospital, and when they do, the argument is that you died there. They (DCS) don’t accept any blame,” continued an elderly and sickly Richards, who last week thanked the grace of God for being alive.

“Inmates who are showing symptoms are being put with us who have already tested negative. Drinking water from the tap is totally out of it and we are not getting adequate bottled water.

“We are getting breakfast very late and we are not getting anything to boost our immune system against the virus. We are in here living like dogs,” said Richards, noting that several inmates have underlying health complications, such as asthma and diabetes.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, several human-rights groups have called for the release of certain low-risk or mentally ill inmates, a move the Government promised to look into following the death of Noel Chambers, an inmate who spent more than 40 years in prison before dying of health complications last year.

Investigation into that case is ongoing, and the nation, almost a year later, still awaits a promised comprehensive report from Chief Justice Bryan Sykes on the matter.

“South Camp (outbreak) is occurring exactly one year after Stand Up for Jamaica asked for low-risk inmates to be released to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Carla Gullotta, chief executive director of human rights group Stand Up for Jamaica, noting that this does not include violent criminals who pose a threat to society.

“But there is an amount of people in prison who could be easily released and, therefore, the numbers and overcrowding could be reduced. We have a bad habit here to wait for the drama and then everybody jumps up for a week and then the week passes and everything goes back to normal.”

* Names changed to protect identity.