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Chicken pox outbreak at state prisons
Prisoners from the remand section of the Port-of-Spain jail and the Maximum Security Prison in Golden Grove, Arouca, were absent from the Port-of-Spain Magistrates Court yesterday, because of a chicken pox outbreak. It is believed that more than 40 prisoners who had matters listed were not taken to court.
Confirming the outbreak, president of the Prison Officers’ Association, Ceron Richards, said there had “been a marked increase in the numbers of officers contracting the virus within the prison walls.” Unable to say how many people had contracted it so far, Richards said the situation started a few months ago at the remand section of the Port-of-Spain jail and then spread to the maximum security prison as prisoners were transferred.
There are approximately 1,200 prisoners at the remand yard of the Golden Grove prison, 900 at the Maximum Security Prison, between 400 and 500 inmates at the Golden Grove Prison, Arouca, and 400-500 at the Port-of-Spain prison.
The T&T Guardian learnt that three police officers assigned to the Court and Process Branch of the Port-of-Spain Magistrates Court had contracted the virus within the last month. Two have since returned to work, while the third remains on sick leave.
Spraying operations began yesterday throughout the Port-of-Spain Magistrates Court as part of the attempt to curb the spread of the virus, but contacted yesterday, Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan warned, “This alone would not be enough.” Richards, meanwhile, said it was now up to the prisons administration to “engage in decisive and positive action to contain the spread of the disease.”
Supporting claims by police that the situation was on the verge of becoming an epidemic, Richards said, “The association will be investigating to find out what is happening and what steps can be taken to curb the spread of the virus.”
Chicken pox is a highly contagious but non-threatening disease that usually begins with flu-like symptoms such as fever, sneezing, coughing and a runny nose, followed by little itchy red marks mimicking a skin rash. It is an airborne virus that can easily be spread through coughing or sneezing, as well as through direct contact with secretions from the lesions of an infected person.
Joining with the police and prisons officers who are calling on Khan to intervene, Richards said it could easily be spread to civilians via interaction between prisoners and officers, prisoners and relatives, officers and their families, lawyers, civilian members of staff working inside the prison and other stakeholders who visit the prison from time to time.
Welcoming any intervention, Richards was optimistic that if the Health Ministry is allowed to do a comprehensive assessment, “it will be a great help in preventing the virus from spreading and reducing the threat of people outside the walls from contracting it.” Police at the court yesterday confirmed several attorneys hurriedly cleared out of the Chief Magistrate’s court on Thursday after hearing about the outbreak.
Health Minister’s advice
Health Minister Fuad Khan has assured his ministry will intervene. Acknowledging concerns from police and prisons officers, who were only equipped with face masks and gloves to handle prisoners, Khan said vaccination alone would not help.
He said while it was difficult to tell who exactly was infected until the first seven days had past, quarantine-like measures were also necessary, coupled with such precautions as covering mouths when sneezing, washing hands with soap and water, using hand sanitisers that contain 70 per cent or more alcohol, and not sharing drinks with someone suspected of having the virus.
Prisons Commissioner Martin Martinez could not be reached for comment yesterday, as phone calls and text messages went unanswered.