Court case highlights TB in prisons

| GroundUp Staff
A prison cell. Photo from Robin Wood’s presentation at the SA TB Conference.

A man who contracted tuberculosis (TB) while in prison is in a long-running court battle with the Department of Correctional Services.

Dudley Lee spent nearly five years in Pollsmoor prison from 1999 to 2004 before being acquitted. He became ill with TB in prison. Now he is suing the Department of Correctional Services for compensation. The Cape High Court found in his favour, but this judgment was overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court. Now Lee has appealed and his case will be heard in the Constitutional Court on 28 August.

The Treatment Action Campaign intends to join the case as a friend of the court. TAC is represented by the public interest law centre, SECTION27. John Stephens is a legal researcher with SECTION27. He explained that the main argument in the case will be whether or not the Department of Correctional Services’s failure to prevent the spread of TB in Pollsmoor Prison led to Lee’s TB.

The conditions in prison that spread TB were described by Professor Robin Wood at the South African Tuberculosis Conference last week in Durban. Wood is the director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre based at the University of Cape Town’s medical school. He explained that awaiting trial prisoners spend 23 hours a day in poorly ventilated, overcrowded cells. A study by him and his colleagues concluded that an awaiting trial prisoner who spends a year in Pollsmoor has a 90% chance of being infected with TB.

Wood said that TB infections in prison can be brought down if the prison authorities put less people in cells, were more pro-active about finding TB cases, managed people with TB better, improved air-flow in the prison cells and reduced the time inmates spent locked up each day.

The Department of Correctional Services however denies there’s anything wrong with the way TB is managed in Pollsmoor. Spokesperson for the Department, Sibongile Promise Khumalo, said, “Pollsmoor does not need to improve on TB prevention as we already adhere to infection controls, protocols and guidelines. We have a good relationship in the management of TB with DOH and their District Clinics and Hospital as well as the City of Cape Town. Every offender is screened on admission. Upon findings of suspects and infectious TB cases they are separated for further intervention, there is a separate unit at Admission Centre that houses [multi-drug-resistant TB] cases. All admission areas have UV lights. Health education is provided on cough etiquette, open window strategy, washing of hands and N95 masks are provided. We also partner with TB/HIV Care organizations for the tracing of TB cases when released for continuation of treatment.”

TOPICS:  Health Human Rights TB

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