Still No Prisoners Tested for Covid-19 Despite Coughing, a ‘Bit of Fever’

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Prisons director Chhem Savuth gestures during a visit to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison on November 23, 2020. (Directorate General of Prisons)

The prisons department says it still has not conducted any Covid-19 testing for prisoners, who are showing some symptoms of coughing, fevers and runny noses due to changing weather, even though the latest local cluster originated from the prisons director’s family.

Thirty-eight people have tested positive in the cluster since the prisons director’s wife went in for testing on November 28 after having cold symptoms for three days.

The prisons director, Chhem Savuth, tested positive for Covid-19 himself during the same week that he visited Phnom Penh’s prisons, with photos showing him standing and gesturing over lines of crouched prisoners. He is not wearing a mask in photos released by the prisons department.

Hundreds of prison officers have been tested as a result of suspected contact with Savuth.

Prisons department spokesperson Nuth Savna said on Tuesday that many of those officers had gone in for their second tests, but no prisoners have been tested.

“There haven’t been any likely signs which we would consider or assume as possible suspicious cases. There are some people who have a little bit of fever, because the weather is changing, there are some with runny noses or a little coughing cases, but we aren’t careless. We are the most careful about any signs related or similar to Covid symptoms,” Savna said.

The country’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded, with prisoners and their families telling of inmates squeezed together into small cells.

At least eight of the nation’s prisons are at more than 300 percent their capacity, while seven others are between 100 and 300 percent capacity, according to human rights group Licadho.

“They are kept in the same rooms, but [we] are just careful and regularly monitor and provide treatments,” Savna said. “Because we know about their mobility. If they have never been anywhere, how would they catch Covid?”

“If they’ve stayed there for months or years and they have cold [symptoms], mostly they have a cold.”

Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine said late Tuesday that health authorities had not been informed of any coughing or fevers in the prisons. The prisons department should be informing health authorities, she said.

“I’ve passed this on to staff to check if there are any sick people,” Vandine said.

Licadho monitoring manager Am Sam Ath said he was concerned about an outbreak in the crowded prisons, and urged that prisoners be tested for Covid-19.

“There should be inspections of the places His Excellency Chhem Savuth visited,” Sam Ath said. “If there are transmissions in the crowd, it will be difficult to control.”

On Wednesday, Mu Sochua, vice-president of the outlawed opposition CNRP, also provided letters that she said were signed by jailed unionist Rong Chhun, who writes that he fears the spread of Covid-19 in the prisons and wants to be evacuated from Prey Sar prison immediately.

The chief of Prey Sar’s CC1 prison could not be reached. CC1 has some 7,700 prisoners and is at 376 percent capacity, Licadho said.

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