The COVID-19 testing of prison officers at Dodds as a requirement for beginning their shifts, amid an outbreak at the St Philip penal institution, is not sitting well with some officers and trade unionist Caswell Franklyn.
More than 50 inmates, kitchen staffers, and prison officers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last few days but officials say operations at the St Philip penal institution have not been significantly affected.
The decision to test prison officers who reported for duty on Wednesday resulted in the discovery of five cases. However, Franklyn, who is a consultant to the Prison Officers’ Association, told Barbados TODAY it was unfair to ask prison officers to get tested before every shift since the testing process is invasive and may be harmful to their health.
In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, Minister of Home Affairs and Information Wilfred Abrahams said a decision was taken to administer rapid tests to the incoming shift of prison officers after a kitchen staffer first tested positive for COVID-19 and two other members of the kitchen staff and 44 males inmates, all of whom were tested between last Saturday and Monday, were subsequently found to have contracted the virus.
From Wednesday’s tests, five positives were reported.
“It would appear at this time that these ‘new’ positives are not related to the kitchen outbreak, and while this is a concerning development, it is not surprising considering the prevailing positivity rate outside of the prison since Omicron’s emergence,” Abrahams said.
“At present, prison operations have not been significantly affected.”
The Home Affairs Minister said the continuing main challenge to the prison has been the exposure of staff members to COVID-19 outside of work.
“Every week sees small numbers of staff exposed to COVID-19 from family and friends,” he said.
Explaining the discovery of the latest cases, Abrahams said a staff member who works in the kitchen recently fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19, “resulting in the testing of all the associated inmates and staff between Saturday, January 29, and Monday, January 31”.
“From that number, some 18 male inmates tested positive on their first test, and a further 26 received positive results today from their second tests yesterday.
“At present, all of the positive inmates are stable and are isolated in the prison, while all of those who have been in contact with them have been quarantined away from the rest of the prison population,” he said.
Abrahams said that, so far, besides the initial positive prison officer who works in the kitchen, two other kitchen staff have tested positive – one male, one female.
“This particular outbreak seems to be limited to the kitchen staff and kitchen work detail inmates, primarily, and secondarily, the residential areas that the positive inmates are associated with,” the Minister said.
However, Franklyn has called on the Minister “to rein in these authorities at the prison because they are getting excessive in their behaviour”.
“They think that they are running some military garrison up there and they can demand that people do things not medically required. Several members have called me to complain that they are not happy with this procedure and they want to know what to do. I tell them they could refuse the test and if they tell them that they can’t work because they refuse the test, then go long back home because you showed up for work. Nobody can require you to get a test every day. That is an invasive test,” he contended.
However, when contacted, Superintendent of Prisons Lieutenant Colonel John Nurse said he was unaware of the development and that he did not give any order.
One prison officer who requested anonymity told Barbados TODAY the officers were surprised when they were greeted at the gates by employees of the prison’s medical unit, informing them they had to be tested and would not be allowed to begin their shift if they failed to comply.
“They are saying that every time you pick up duty you have to get the test done…. It was also asked who issued the directive, where is the paperwork to say that this is something legal that you are forcing me to do, and nothing like that could be obtained.
“There are outbreaks at other government institutions and people are not being forced to take a COVID test before starting duty. Many things are adding to officers’ frustration and now to be greeted with this in the morning and we had no prior knowledge of it. Why are we being told that if we don’t take this test, we cannot start work?” the prison employee said.
Minister Abrahams said that since the well-publicised COVID-19 outbreak at Dodds from late 2020 to early 2021, the prison has continued to be free of outbreaks or major COVID-19 related challenges.
Abrahams said policies relating to the manner in which prisoners are accepted into the facility, COVID-19 related protocols, and the vaccination of willing staff and inmates have helped in this regard. He added that one of the major improvements at the correctional facility would have been the training of staff there to do PCR and rapid testing which has allowed the institution to catch many cases early and prevent spread into the prison population and staff in general.
“This includes the not so infrequent discovery of COVID-19 in new admissions/remands and the quarantine and testing policies there have thus far prevented any spread from such cases,” Abrahams said. [email protected]