File picture: Inmates in a cell block at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca.

Some 240 inmates were placed in isolation at the Maximum Security Prison (MSP) in Arouca yesterday, after 18 inmates from a group of 29 who had complained of feeling unwell tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

The confirmation came from Prison Commissioner Dennis Pulchan after an inmate at the facility recorded some of the inmates being transferred yesterday and shared the video on social media. In the video, the inmate claimed the prisoners were being moved to a cordoned-off area of the facility.

Although admitting to being concerned that a prisoner had an illegal cellphone in the system, Pulchan confirmed the video was authentic, saying it showed inmates who were identified as primary and secondary contacts of the inmates who tested positive for COVID being taken out from their cells and placed in isolation where they are to be monitored for signs of the virus.

“The Trinidad and Tobago Prison Service advises that the Maximum Security Prison is under temporary lockdown after 18 inmates returned positive results for COVID-19. The prisoners, who complained about feeling unwell, were placed before the Prisons Medical Officer who recommended testing as per procedure. They were tested on Thursday, November 5 and returned positive results the following day,” Pulchan said.

“They were immediately relocated to the Claxton Bay Correctional Facility, our official COVID-19 treatment centre and contact tracing was initiated.”

Pulchan said between yesterday and today, medical officials are expected to conduct further swabs to be sent for testing for the virus.

He noted the concerns of relatives and friends of both prisons officers and inmates over the situation but is assuring all that the affected persons are being observed and monitored daily and welfare officers have been assigned to update persons identified as next of kin.

“Containment measures have continued with a scheduled testing of inmates identified as contacts to the positive cases, daily sanitisation exercises, thermal scanning of both staff and inmates, mandatory wearing of masks, utilisation of full personal protection equipment in areas identified as hot zones, limited movement or transfer of prisoners and enforcement of advisories for members of staff to desist from attending work and seek medical attention at the nearest health facility if feeling unwell,” Pulchan said.

Pulchan said as of yesterday, the Prison Service had recorded a total of 29 positive cases among inmates throughout the nation’s prisons. He said they numbers among the officers had been as high as 75 at one stage but that had now dropped to 40 still quarantined at home.

“Tasked with the management of over 4,000 inmates, we continue to work assiduously and under the guidance of the expert medical personnel of the Ministry of Health,” Pulchan said.

With respect to the video circulating on social media, Pulchan admitted that the service is “grappling” over the issue of mobile devices among inmates.

“I do have my concerns and I do hope to find the person who would have illegally transmitted that particular video,” he said.

“With regards to mobiles, if I get 100 today, I will get 100 tomorrow…We are grappling with this because it does have a negative impact because shots are being called against officers from inmates via the mobiles and I am doing the best I can in dealing with this issue.”

Following news of latest positive tests among inmates, the United Prison Movement UK said they too are concerned about the outbreak throughout the nation’s prisons. In a statement, it said they had received “numerous complaints that prisoners are not being allowed out for association (airing), they are not permitted canteen visits and they have been told that there will be no further court hearings at this time.”

“It has also been suggested to us that prisoners are having meals provided up to and above six hours late. In addition to this, we have been advised that a number of prison officers have been tested positive for COVID-19,” the UK movement added.

It also recommended that while the containment and/or prevention of the virus is of concern, the Ministry of National Security also had a duty to inmates and staff.

“Families at this time have expressed deep concern for their loved ones, particularly those that are on remand at the Maximum-Security Prison (MSP), where the outbreak is being described as out of control. A public statement from the Ministry of National Security at this time should help to alleviate any concerns or fears they may have following rumours currently circulating—that a significant number of inmates have been tested positive for COVID-19.”

The UK Movement has suggested that “all court hearings should be allowed to go ahead if parties agree to conduct the hearing remotely and that legal visits should remain in place.