'Sun City' accused of staging Covid-19 preparedness 'act' for Lamola
Johannesburg Prison officials staged an elaborate charade this week to fool Ronald Lamola, the minister of justice & correctional services, into believing the facility is observing strict protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
But staff say the careful precautions on display when Lamola made an inspection visit on Wednesday - including gloves and masks and the screening of visitors - lasted only until the minister's entourage left, and even the "hand sanitiser" that was used was really tap water.
Staff members who did not want to be named told the Sunday Times it was the first time such measures had been implemented at the jail known as "Sun City", which houses more than 9,500 inmates and has more than 1,000 prisons staff.
"It is just a show to appease the minister and mislead the public," said one staffer. "This prison is a coronavirus ticking time-bomb waiting to explode."
When a Sunday Times team visited the jail on Friday, there was no sign of the precautions that greeted Lamola. A journalist entered without being screened for Covid-19 symptoms or having his hands sanitised. Visitors and officials mingled as if there was no risk of contagion.
Staff said new inmates were admitted without health screening and were not kept apart from the existing prison population.
Asked what had happened to the protective masks and gloves that were worn on Wednesday, one warden said: "Don't make me laugh. What protection? You can see no gloves, no masks . Those things we were given when the minister came were once-off, for acting.
"We became the likes of Brutus and T-Gom," the warden said, referring to characters in the TV series The Queen.
Prison officials said it has been business as usual at the jail, the biggest in the country, despite the social-distancing rules and other measures imposed by the government to flatten the curve of infection.
We might be carriers [of the virus] as we speak. The screening process is laughable at best.A prison employee
"So the staged show that you were watching was just for today because the minister was coming," one said on Wednesday. "Otherwise those tanks we saw today spraying everywhere was a first."
Another said: "All is normal at the Johannesburg Prison . The sanitiser, it is water and fake. Management knows about it. Even the national prisons commissioner was not convinced by it."
Prison staff wear no mask or gloves when conducting roll call, which involves making physical contact with inmates to take their fingerprints.
They describe the screening process for visitors to the bail office as "laughable". Although it is supposed to include a temperature check, staff say the prison has no thermometer.
This week alone, more than 50 people entered the facility to make bail arrangements for inmates, according to a register seen by the Sunday Times.
Staff say prison management has ignored their requests for safety measures.
"We might be carriers [of the virus] as we speak. The screening process is laughable at best," one said.
"There is no compliance here. People will die. From here we are taking this virus to my family, or from our homes and communities to the inmates.
"You can imagine . one person is infected and it spreads to the rest. It would be chaos."
Chrispin Phiri, spokesperson for Lamola, had not responded to requests for comment by the time of going to press.