The ghost of Covid-19 looms over Punjab prisons

No vaccination of elderly inmates; jails struggle to maintain social distancing


Muhammad Ilyas April 06, 2021

LAHORE:

When the country sounded the alarm over fears of a third coronavirus wave last month, it drove the provincial authorities to hit the pedal on inmate screening in jails across Punjab.

Following which, more than six prisoners have tested positive for the virus so far, pushing prison managements to falter into SOP implementation to prevent the disease from plaguing the exceedingly crowded prison system.

Yet however, given spatial and other restraints in the 42 jails across Punjab, this has been a hard row to hoe for the prison administrations.

hese jails, already functioning past capacity, house a total of 53,000 inmates despite cumulative limit of 34,000, making social distancing near impossible to impose.

Read more: Senate passes resolution for cheap, free Covid-19 vaccine

“We are still making court visits with detainees every day. So even if a single detainee catches the virus on one of these trips and brings it back, it puts the whole prison at risk,” told a prison official on conditions of anonymity.

“Numbers are spiking in the province, in view of which we have re-established the isolation wards that had been set up during earlier spells, when a lot of inmates started testing positive,” he added.

According to prison sources, all available resources are currently being directed towards preventing a coronavirus spread in the prison system.

“Whenever a prisoner is screened and tests positive, he or she is immediately transferred to our isolation wards.

There, the prisoner is taken care of by the prison hospital staff. Prison barracks are regularly disinfected, all inmates are provided with soaps and wearing of facial masks is encouraged,” the source informed.

Yet however, where the efforts can be called commendable, certain practices being carried out in Punjab prisons still augment the possibility of a coronavirus epidemic among prisoners.

Per statistics, there are approximately two thousand prisoners aged above 60, currently detained in the Punjab prison system. Yet, per inmate claims, none of them have been included in the countrywide vaccination programme, while visitations have been going on per usual and inmates are shuttled between court and prison on a daily.

“This puts elderly prisoners at a higher risk of catching the virus and transmitting it to others, yet authorities have not bat an eye lash to this issue as yet,” an unnamed prison source revealed.

Speaking further, the source alleged that former secretary of primary and secondary healthcare Captain R Usman, had specifically requested prison authorities to vaccinate their elderly prisoners, but his plea didn’t incite much of a reaction.

It is significant to mention that when former Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif had put in a special request to be vaccinated, the Health Department was quick to inoculate him in Kot Lakhpat Jail— a treatment no other inmate of the central jail has been privileged enough to receive.

Speaking about Punjab prisons’ inoculation plan, the prison source said that there are claims being made from both ends.

“On one hand there are constant statements about how prison authorities have failed to keep the risk at bay. On the other, prison authorities say that they are ready for vaccination so long as the government provides vaccines for prisoners just like all other senior citizens. Whenever the vaccines are made available, prison authorities pledge to put out a list of inmates aged 65 and above for inoculation,” he told The Express Tribune.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2021.

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