By Michelle Sutherland
If you have a loved one that is currently confined to the Belize Central Prison, coming October 1st, the only way that you will be able to pay them a visit is if you have gotten vaccinated and can provide proof of vaccination to the prison officials for entry.
The new regulations, which are expected to be announced in the next couple of days, is in line with the wider regulations that the Ministry of Health and Wellness is expected to roll out on October 1st which will require residents to present a ”vaccination pass” to enter any business, public building or public transportation.
CEO Virgilio Murillo told this newspaper, “Remember prison is designed to hold people accountable to laws so it would be very amiss if we do not enforce that regulation.” Murillo said that the 240 staff members of which 47% are already vaccinated will be reminded of the regulations and the need to get vaccinated because there will be no exceptions. Murillo said that visitors to the institution will be held to the same standards and will be refused entry coming October 1st if they cannot present their vaccination cards at the door.
As it relates to 1,040 prisoners at the institution, Murillo noted that 44 % have been vaccinated so far. He claims that at the institution prisoners still have their rights to choose whether they want to be vaccinated or not. Nevertheless, he feels that eventually vaccination behind the prison will become mandatory for the inmates due to their own safety. The CEO, however, clarified that he is awaiting guidance from the Ministry of Health and Wellness and whenever they announce mandatory vaccinations for the public then he will follow suit and require that prisoners are inoculated as well.
Currently, the CEO says that prisoners on a whole have been receptive to the vaccination drive. He told the Reporter, “Absolutely! They have a choice, but what I can tell you is that because of what is happening in the community quite a number of them have been jumping on board with the vaccination drive. I mean by now the number of people that have been vaccinated and the amount of mortality among those that have not been vaccinated there is no question about the effectiveness of the vaccine.”
But while prison officials are urging inmates and staff to get vaccinated, due to the outbreak of the virus in the public, as of Monday, September 20th, the prison instituted a partial lockdown, thereby, restricting outside visitors to the institution. Currently, the prison is not accepting any type of drop-off for inmates; however, prisoners are still able to do their virtual and telephone calls and are given the opportunity to recreate inside the prison grounds. The lockdown is expected to be lifted on October 1st which goes directly in line with when the vaccination pass will be required for entry.
Murillo explained what prompted the decision. “Well, we saw what was happening in the community, and whatever happens, there will certainly affect what happens in the prison. The problem with the prison is that we are considered a congregated population and there is not much leeway for you to social distance in a prison, so as a responsible prison we have to take the necessary precaution. We cannot wait until things start to spiral out of proportion. We already saw what was happening just by the 63 people who came in during the most recent State of Emergency for the Southside which brought in 10 cases. What do you think would have happened if we had continued to have visitors visit the prison?”
According to Murillos’s account, the prison has been doing extremely well in keeping their positive cases at a minimum of three for the past nine months, by adhering to their public health measures, quarantine COVID-positive cases, and conducting contact tracing where necessary. The highest explosion of cases was a couple of weeks ago when the State of Emergency for Southside Belize City was instituted which resulted in 10 positive cases infiltrating the prison, while an additional 16 cases were from new admissions. Presently the prison only has six active cases.
The Ministry of Health team is planning to carry out another vaccination drive at the institution on September 29th which is when prison officials hope to get the remainder of the population vaccinated.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that persons who are incarcerated or detained get vaccinated. According to the CDC, “Incarcerated or detained people living in correctional and detention facilities are at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 for various reasons, including being in close proximity (less than 6 feet) to other people. Incarcerated people might also be older or have medical conditions that make them more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.”