File picture: A prison officer listens to an inmate at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca.

Rhondor Dowlat-Rostant

Prison officers’ lives are being threatened on a daily basis as tensions are said to be rising among inmates in the system, especially at the Maximum Security Prison (MSP) where, to date, 86 inmates have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

The tensions boiled over on Tuesday when some inmates currently in the quarantine section at the MSP attempted a riot over the late arrtival of their meals. However, the riot was short-lived thanks to one prison officer who quickly quelled the situation and restored peace and order.

Several videos were subsequently uploaded on social media showing unsanitary conditions at the prisons. Inmates in some of the videos claimed there were 12 of them housed in a cell and that they were at all risk of contracting the virus that had now penetrated the prison system.

In a latest development, police officers are now investigating direct threats made on Tuesday to two prison officers currently assigned to the MSP.

At the Longdenville Police Post, a 33-year-old prisons officer told police that between 7.30 and 8.30 pm, he was on exercise duty at the Maximum Security Prison Arouca when he heard a male voice state, “Longdenville boss watch your back. We coming out just now.” The prison officer told police because he is from the Longdenville area he felt threatened by the words.

In the other incident, a 39-year-old prison officer told police he was at the MSP around 7.30 pm when an inmate he knows from Edinburgh 500, Chaguanas, who is presently on remand for murder, looked at him and said, “All allyuh tun key dead; especially you 500 boss.”

In another video, one inmate could be heard urging the family members of inmates who may live close to prison officers to target them.

Contacted for comment on the issues yesterday, acting Commissioner of Prisons Dennis Pulchan said all his officers are being threatened daily but he assured that all is being done to protect them.

“Trust me,” Pulchan said.

In an immediate response, the Prison Officers’ Association called on the Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Health to recognise that the prison represents “an explosive set of circumstances that require a very focused and aggressive response to ensure the lives of the officers and inmates are protected as much as possible.”

The association, however, assured that in the interim they continue to advise members that self-preservation is paramount.

“They leaving we to get sick and dead!” the release said.

“Over the years, the Prison Officers’ Association has had to navigate a very hostile environment, for and on behalf of our membership, littered with issues surrounding officers being murdered, assaults on the job, poor and unsanitary working conditions, failing and falling infrastructure, non-payment of overtime etc. Now we must add the very real issues surrounding COVID-19 and its associated challenges to our members.”

It added, “One must note that not withstanding the public general unsympathetic posturing in relation to the conditions under which prisoners are held, that most inmates return to society. The prison environment has been described by some as “stationary cruise ships” where cruise ships have been proven to be some of the most highly contagious environments for the spread of the virus.”

The association said it had already seen some upheavals in the system and expects more incidents because the management continues to place both officers and inmates in extreme danger.

It said the provision of PPE equipment is also either insufficient or absent.

“The association is of the view that the need for PPE in the prison is on the same level as that of a medical institution housing COVID-19 positive patients. Additionally, a proper operational audit should be done to ensure those rolled back activities are continuously monitored and assessed to ensure cross contamination and infection be reduced to a minimum, if at all.”

Responding to the association’s comments, Pulchan said: “Of course my officers are very important to me and I will make sure I do my best to get the best for them. It is a high risk job and my officers are essential workers.”