Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons of DR Congo

May 13, 2020

By Patience Sai

This piece is part of our May campaign highlighting women in peacekeeping, leading up to the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on 29 May.

As the world faces the unprecedented threat of COVID-19, the work of the United Nations continues.

Beyond implementing our mandates within current constraints, peacekeeping missions are dedicating resources to respond to the pandemic.

Most of my recent time and energy, too, as Chief of the Corrections Section serving with MONUSCO, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has been focused on supporting the national prison administration to prepare for a possible outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons.

This includes policy decisions, supporting the drafting of regulations and contingency plans, communicating with heads of prisons around the country, conducting prison preparedness visits where feasible, arranging for critical equipment to support response and quarantine efforts, and ensuring that my staff — who continue to serve in extremely stressful and challenging environments — are physically and mentally well.

Prisons in the DRC are significantly over-crowded — some prisons are well over 300% their intended capacity — and under-resourced, resulting in limited food, health and hygiene supplies.

These conditions have created a dangerous environment for riots, escapes as well as the spread of infectious diseases, including Ebola, and more recently, COVID-19.

While these circumstances may appear dire, the national prison administration, with support from MONUSCO, has been able to manage riots, thwart escape attempts and prevent Ebola outbreaks in prisons. We are currently working together to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Design by Juan Mophart

My mission is to positively influence national and regional decisions that protect prisoners, prison staff and the general public.

Preparing for COVID-19 in prisons is a complex and multilayered process. It requires strong partnerships and clear communication not just between health officials and the prison administration, but also between the national and regional prison administrations, individual prisons, personnel, prisoners, as well as the general public.

Having gained the trust of my national counterparts as the co-chair and strategic advisor to the DRC National Ebola response, I feel prepared to continue to empower and support the national prison authorities during this crisis.

Prevention through physical distancing is one of the most effective means of reducing the spread of COVID-19. This is, however, extremely difficult given the appalling conditions in prisons. I work closely with our Human Rights colleagues and the Justice Support Section in supporting national efforts to decongest prisons by limiting new prison admissions and maximizing the release of low-risk and vulnerable prisoners.

These efforts have resulted in over 2,000 prisoners released nationwide.

While we are proud of this progress, the total prison population amounts to approximately 40,000 people.

There is still more to be done, especially on reducing the number of new admissions.

Unfortunately, many of the newly-admitted detainees are being held for petty and low-risk crimes that are diminishing many of the decongestion gains.

Therefore, I am continuing to advocate that prisons should be reserved for those who are real threats to peace and security.

With the trust of our national counterparts at the National COVID-19 Committee, I have been able, to the extent possible, to influence critical policy decisions, provide clear and simple technical guidance, and convey real-time information to mission leadership.

These efforts have had positive results. For example, we have managed to secure several sea containers that will be converted into prison isolation and quarantine units.

Additionally, we have acquired a Sports UtilityVehicle and converted it into an ambulance to transport prisoners infected with COVID-19 to medical facilities in Kinshasa.

The timely COVID-19 Operational Toolbox developed at the global level together with UNITAR will also be a vital communications tool for staff, prisoners and visitors in combatting the disease throughout the next few months.

My most challenging, yet rewarding, responsibility is to provide leadership and support to the well-being of my staff.

I am fortunate to work with an excellent team, who, despite some being away from family, continue to support each other while working in challenging environments.

We prepare and eat meals together, which boosts morale and comradery, creating a sense of security and belonging, despite the various challenges we are encountering.

I am confident these safe spaces will empower us to continue supporting prisons during this COVID-19 pandemic and, in turn, support the people of the DRC.

Ms. Patience Sai has 27 years of corrections work experience, with 16 of those years within the United Nations. She has been deployed to seven different missions and is currently Chief of the Corrections Section in MONUSCO.

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons of DR Congo was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.