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File picture: Prisoners get air time at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca

A group of over 500 remand prisoners at the Maximum Security Prison (MSP) in Arouca have threatened to take fresh legal action over an alleged lack of health and safety measures at the country’s prisons during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The activist group, Justice Seekers Association, which lost a similar lawsuit against acting Prisons Commissioner Dennis Pulchan in October, made the new threat in a pre-action protocol letter sent to the Office of the Attorney General on Wednesday.

While in the first case, which is currently being appealed, the group claimed that Pulchan breached prisons rules and regulations by failing to take adequate steps to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus in the country’s prisons, they are now claiming that their constitutional rights to life and health were breached by the failure of Minister of Health to introduce specific public health regulations for prisons.

They are also claiming that their constitutional rights to equality of treatment from a public authority and to equality before the law were infringed as other citizens were protected under the ongoing regulations, while they were left exposed.

“The current spread of COVID-19 within the Maximum Security Prison is as a result of the wilful failure and/or refusal by the Commissioner of Prisons, Minister of Health, and Inspector of Prisons to ensure the implementation of relevant protocols to prevent entry and spread of the COVID-19 infection within the prison,” attorney Antonya Pierre said in the letter.

Pierre sought to outline the conditions faced by their clients since the start of the pandemic in March.

Pierre claimed that there was no running water in cells for over a year and that prisoners were only issued with half a bar of blue soap and half a bar of red soap to last a month.

“Furthermore, social distancing cannot be practised as there are at least seven persons in each cell and during airing, which is one hour daily, the sports for physical activity are football and basketball which has physical contact according to our instructions,” she said.

She claimed that the only sanitization, which occurred since the start of the pandemic, was when officers used a mist blower with bleach and water to spray cells.

“It is also our instructions that the prison officers, who are interacting “in the free world” with the outside public when off-duty, have not been observed wearing masks, gloves or using hand sanitizer,” she said.

In the letter, Pierre also referred to several recent newspaper reports, which stated that prison officers and prisoners at the MSP had tested positive for the virus.

She suggested that her clients would consider forgoing filing the lawsuit if the State agreed to test the entire prison population, to provide sufficient supplies for the prisoners to regularly clean their cells, and to have cells professionally cleaned once a week.

They are also seeking reusable cloth masks for the entire prison population and financial compensation for the alleged breaches of their constitutional rights.

Due to the urgent nature of the case, the group’s legal team gave the AG’s Office until yesterday to respond to the letter. Guardian Media understands that they had not received a response, up to late yesterday.

In a decision in early October, High Court Judge Robin Mohammed denied leave to pursue the lawsuit against Pulchan.

Mohammed said: “It cannot be said the Commissioner breached any statutory duty.”

“In that regard, the Court is also not satisfied that the Applicants/Intended Claimants have shown an arguable ground for judicial review with a realistic prospect of success on this basis,” Mohammed said.

He added that from his analysis of the case, Pulchan had implemented measures that were sufficient and in accordance with guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Ministry of Health.

Mohammed also noted that under the Prison Rules the group’s members are allowed to make a complaint to Pulchan or the Inspector of Prisons but chose to not do so and filed the lawsuit.

The group is also being represented by Anthony Egbert, Farai Hove-Masaisai, and Sallian Holdip-Francis.