Battle against covid19 behind bars


An inmate sanitises the cell block to combat covid19 using a mist blower. –

Election fever had reached a peak on August 9, the day before the general election.

Inside the Port of Spain (PoS) Prison, convicted inmate Neil Samdeo’s temperature was rising.

Samdeo, a diabetic, coughed through the night in the cell he shared with three other inmates. He covered himself with a sheet, an unusual act in a sweltering, overcrowded prison with poor ventilation.

Feeling dizzy the next morning, he went to the infirmary. He was sent straight to the hospital in a prison jeep. There, a nurse later told Samdeo he had tested positive for covid19.

“In the distance I overheard a doctor telling a prison officer, ‘We’re not expecting him to return to Port of Spain Prison.’

“Everybody moved away from me. I started praying.”

Samdeo, the first case of covid19 in any of TT’s prisons, was immediately transferred to Caura Hospital, where prison guards sitting at the nurses’ monitoring station watched the camera in his room. Samdeo remained in Caura for 18 days, and then went to the prison service’s Eastern Correctional Rehabilitation Centre (ECRC) in Santa Rosa, which served as the prison system’s step-down facility.

Inmates donned in protective wear fumigate the prison. –

Back in prison, everyone in Samdeo’s cell had been quarantined. Infirmary officer and paramedic Kamal Matabadal worked desperately to contain the spread.

“We hoped our worst fears weren’t coming true,” said Matabadal.

From March, PoS Prison instituted a stringent screening process at the prison entrance.

“We took temperatures with a digital thermometer and asked visitors and officers health-related questions when they entered the prison. Sanitising began with bleach sprayed in a mist machine. All inmates had interviews about their health during rounds,” said Matabadal.

Asst Supt Winfield Walker said, “We looked for symptoms like loss of taste and smell, a temperature – anything looking like a cold. When Samdeo was diagnosed, it all hit home.”

After the first case, two others came in quick succession. Samdeo’s cellmate Rishi Chattergoon complained of chest pains, a dry cough, headache and body pains. A doctor came to the prison to test him.

Four days later, when a prison officer appeared covered with protective gear from head to toe, Chattergoon knew he had covid19.

“The officer said, ‘We’re taking you to Caura Hospital.’ I thought about my 19-year-old-son and cried.

“While I was walking out with my Bible in my hand, the inmates in quarantine were quiet, but one shouted, ‘Don’t worry. We’re praying for you and Samdeo.’”

PoS Prison Supt Noel Philip and Walker had barely had time to settle into their new posts when covid19 hit. Philip had been putting a covid19 plan in place at Carrera when he was transferred to Port of Spain on June 2. Walker had been transferred from Golden Grove Remand in April.

“From March, the whole prison system had been ramping up for covid, but PoS Prison seemed to have an edge,” said Walker. “When I reached here, the superintendent, Charmaine Johnson, had signs and posters everywhere about covid symptoms and what to do if you feel sick. She spoke to inmates regularly, and I found them more sensitised to the problem than the Remand Prison where I came from.”

Port of Spain Prison Supt Noel Phillip –

Soon after Samdeo’s case, PoS Prison had 37 officers test positive for covid19 and 77 officers went into quarantine.

Prisons increased sanitising efforts with sanitising stations, and stopped programmes and family visits. Officers now wore masks religiously.

“We desperately need masks for inmates,” Philip told the Wishing for Wings Foundation, which had been running prison programmes before covid19. The NGO contacted Revan Teelucksingh, and his NGO Sewa donated 700 completed masks and 3,100 precut masks and elastic. Gary Aboud from Mode Alive donated cloth to make over 3,000 masks and organised toilet paper, hand soap and laundry soap. His sister Linda Stephen also donated vital sanitation supplies. Individuals and companies gave gallons of hand sanitiser and bleach for the misting machine.

Prison sanitised four times a day

In a room near the library, the PoS Prison’s only tailor, Ameer Mohammed, serving a life sentence, sewed over 200 masks. Walker organised for tailors at the Maximum Security Prison and Women’s Prison to sew some donated cloth, aiming for every inmate in the entire prison system to have two masks.

Mohammed said, “When covid came in prison, I felt frightened, but when I saw officers and inmates wearing masks I sewed, I felt I was helping the situation.”

Working 12-hour days, Walker stepped up to run the prison when Philip was ordered into quarantine twice.

Supervised by officers, inmate volunteers, dressed in protective gear from head to toe, operated the mist blower with the bleach concoction. They sanitised the prison four times a day.

Walker and Philip, on his return to work, spent much of their time with inmates and officers outside their offices.

“We engaged inmates who complained the most and sensitised them to look out for inmates with symptoms because some inmates, afraid of quarantine, wouldn’t admit feeling sick,” said Walker.

Inmates needed clothes, so PoS Prison developed a procedure allowing family members to bring clothes and Lysol to sanitise the items.

“We kept clothes for four days before distribution,” Walker explained. “We did this based on our own internet research. We had to become covid19 experts. Our protocol was reviewed and adopted by all the prisons.”

“My focus was on managing fear,” said Philips. “We did more listening than ever. We didn’t want people to go into panic mode. I interacted with officers quite a lot to keep their morale up.”

“We were brutally honest about what we could and couldn’t do. That saved us,” said Walker. “We spoke to the inmates, answered questions, addressed misinformation, told them the proper way to wear masks and sanitise hands.

“When the masks came, inmates saw something tangible happening. The masks brought positivity. We got buy-in. Co-operation from the inmates went a long way.”

Samdeo said, “There are inmates who complain about how prisons handled covid, but the numbers of cases here prove it was handled well.

“We want people to realise the importance of wearing masks.”

To date, there have been only six confirmed cases among inmates at PoS Prison, including an inmate in his 70s with hypertension and glaucoma.

“He went to Caura and survived,” said Walker.

Chattergoon says he still has periodic headaches, eye pain and difficulty breathing.

“Use hand sanitiser and talk to God,” Chattergoon said. “This is serious. We know that in prison.

“I don’t think my life or anyone else’s life will ever be the same after covid.”

An inmate sanitizes the prison vehicles with a mist blower. –

He said it has changed his. When he leaves prison, he wants to help the poor.

“Covid taught us we will have to be more caring about each other.”

Philip said, “I have learned that officers are more committed and dedicated than we thought. They certainly rose to the occasion, in spite of all their fears about their safety and that of their families. We didn’t have officers calling in ill or trying to hide from covid when 77 officers were quarantined. They came and worked hours that concerned me. I feared they were heading towards burnout.”

But fighting covid19 is not getting any easier.

“It’s a never-ending battle,” said Philip. “We’re more vigilant than ever, organising deep-cleaning and power-washing now. We must sanitise everything, from the counters at visiting stations to handcuffs.”

Philip and Walker both said they were stunned by the public support since the prison’s first covid19 case.

“With all of the restrictions and slowing down of the economy, I was surprised and impressed with the public and NGO’s response in assisting us,” said Philip. “In the time of covid, people’s hearts out there grew.”

Debbie Jacob is the founder of the Wishing for Wings Foundation.

Inmates working on the frontline of covid-19 sanitation have asked for Vitamin C tablets. The Port of Spain prison has an urgent need for paracetamol, Panadol, buscopan, bleach, hand soap, blue soap, new slippers in all sizes, new vests and boxers. Anyone who wishes to donate can call Winfield Walker at 623-5144 about donations.

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