A thousand inmates, shared utilities and living spaces, proximal interactions, and everything conducive to the rapid spread of COVID-19 — the scene at Central Prison, Poojappura, the largest penitentiary in the state, was more than nightmarish to the authorities after 50% of inmates tested COVID-positive at the facility by the second week of August.
The prison is but pacing back to normal, thanks to systematic testing, thorough segregation and isolation, and strict adherence to COVID-control protocols.
Prison authorities said they had already started taking precautions when cases began to rise in the state. Inmates who had to be admitted were screened and the prisoners commandeered for outside work were not allowed to mix with those inside.
But the worst fears of the authorities came true as a 72-year-old inmate, who fell unconscious on August 10, tested positive for COVID-19 at the Medical College Hospital (MCH) the next day. The authorities immediately arranged for the test of other inmates in the 7th block, a building where the aged prisoners are lodged.
Soon, the situation grew worse with 59 inmates in the block testing positive. The number of those affected by COVID rose to 470 within a few days. The total strength at the prison was 970 at the time. Of the 264 staff, 12, including the chief medical officer, tested positive. A majority of them were asymptomatic. One of the first patients from the prison, Manikantan, died in five days at the MCH.
The situation was turning grim as the jail wardens were unable to even carry out routine activities like a headcount.
Jail Superintendent Nirmalanandan Nair said active cases rose to around 510 at one point after COVID-positive patients from other jails were shifted to the Central prison. "After the numbers rose, there was no point in looking for the source of infection. Still, we believe that hospital visits of some inmates might be the reason. A section of inmates is in Central prison due to proximity to speciality medical institutions like the Regional Cancer Centre (RCC), the Sri Chitra Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST), the MCH etc. They used to go to these places for routine check-ups," he said.
The jail authorities took 'affirmative action' to prevent spread. In accordance with the Supreme Court directive to decongest prisons during the pandemic, over 350 inmates, mostly senior citizens, were released on parole. Relaxations were granted to inmates who had completed two-third of their jail term. Those already on parole were asked to continue until informed.
Preventing outside infection
As part of steps to prevent infection from outside, new convicts were first subjected to COVID tests and directed to stay on quarantine in First-Line Treatment Centres for 14 days before being admitted to the jail. All inmates were given two reusable multi-layered cloth masks each. The inmates who had interaction with the public at the jail-run cafeteria, petrol pump etc were made to stay in dormitories outside the perimeter wall. The authorities said those who had public interaction were tested.
Jail authorities said they were taken aback initially when the numbers shot up. Not sparing even one, all 12 blocks of the jail reported COVID cases. Of the two doctors in the prison, one tested positive and the other had to go on quarantine. S Santhosh, Deputy Inspector-General, Prison Headquarters, said they sought support from the Health Department which sent a five-member medical team for 24-hour functioning inside the jail.
"The immediate task was to segregate those affected and the others and house them in separate blocks. Also, those vulnerable, like senior citizens and those with other health issues, had to be kept sanitized. The inmates of the district jail, also housed on the same campus, were shifted to the Neyyattinkara sub-jail. Then, those tested negative were moved to the district jail complex. We made changes in rules to include more protein and vitamin-rich food for positive persons, which helped in faster recovery," the DIG said.
The next round of testing is scheduled from September 3.
Joint Superintendent D Sathyaraj said they brought in restrictions on the use of shared facilities. "Each newspaper was shared by 15 inmates. Also, they were using one telephone for permitted calls. These facilities were stopped. Outlets involving public interaction such as cafeteria, chapatti unit, garment store, and the recently opened petrol pump were closed," he said.
But to add to their woes, some of the prisoners shifted to the Neyyattinkara sub-jail tested positive and had to be brought back to the Central Prison. "Of the 88 persons sent to the Neyyattinkara sub-jail, 12 tested positive. Around 10 inmates of the special sub-jail in the city too tested positive, later. Since the Central Prison had already reported COVID, inmates tested positive were brought here for further care. That is how the numbers rose to around 510 at one point," he said.
"We had to learn from the basics. We had to start adapting to PPE kits and take necessary precautions to prevent infection," Sathyaraj said.
Onam season is usually a windfall for the various enterprises of the Central Prison. Things were but different this time. "With the vegetables grown from the farm on our premises, we used to conduct 'Poorada chantha' ahead of Thiruonam. Last year, we got Rs 15 lakh from the sale. It was completely stopped due to COVID," DIG Santhosh said.
This apart, in-house jobs like paper bag manufacturing, carpentry, fabric weaving, tailoring etc., too were stopped. "Bathing soap and floor cleaning lotion for all other jails in the state are manufactured at the Central Prison. Once the existing stock dries up, all these institutions will have to pay extra to source these items from the market. An inmate must be given a new shirt every three months and new dhoti every six months. That too has been affected as the inmates used garment made in the jail. The total loss of revenue is yet to be ascertained," Santhosh said.
Path to recovery
Apart from jails in Thiruvananthapuram, the District Jail in Kollam too was severely hit by COVID. All 186 inmates and over 40 staff tested positive. The cases in these jails prompted authorities to conduct antigen tests on all 4,700 prisoners lodged in all jails in the state and around 1,000 staff. Barring some cases in Ernakulam, most results were negative.
In Central prison, the jail authorities are gearing up for the third round of test (from September 3). Those who show symptoms will be tested. Central Prison staff hope the situation will be back to normal in a month.
(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram.)