The Namibian Correctional Services (NCS) is skating on thin ice as the government department tasked with rehabilitating offenders, including some of the country’s hardened criminals, struggles under the weight of massive medical personnel resignations due to low pay.
Head of the Namibian Correctional Services Central Staff Directorate, Commissioner Sam Shalulange, told the Windhoek Observer on Thursday that they were only operating with one medical doctor across the country’s entire prison system.
Shalulange said three foreign medical doctors resigned between November last year and last week following the withdrawal of a professional allowance that they were entitled to as part of their contract agreement after the Office of the Prime Minister deemed it illegal.
NCS is also struggling to retain nurses with only 39 employed out of the required 97 positions.
“We are left with one Namibian medical doctor whom we only recruited in November,” Shalulange said in an interview.
“There were four doctors, one each from Zimbabwe, DRC, Burundi and Namibia, but one resigned in December and the two, whose contracts were ending on 8 February, decided that they were not going to renew.
“The issue is that there was a professional allowance that was being paid to the doctors, but the Office of the Prime Minister advised that the allowance was illegal and it was stopped.”
A source within the Namibian Correctional Services, who spoke to the Windhoek Observer on condition of anonymity, said there is supposed to be at least one medical doctor in all correctional facilities across the country, but that is not the case at the moment exposing inmates to health dangers.
Shalulange said they plan to advertise the vacant positions at the end of February, but he expressed concern that they might not find doctors willing to come on board.
“We are advertising because we have the need, but I am sure we will only get foreign doctors because they are the ones willing to work for such low pay.
“The correctional services environment is very risky. Add to that, medical personnel work under a lot of stress because they serve too many offenders. The numbers we have are not adequate to serve all the inmates and these are all factors that lead to them resigning.
“So we need incentives like danger or professional allowances to keep them because why should someone come and work in a correctional facility where they are exposed to a dangerous environment when they can work at a public or private hospital where no such danger or pressure exists? It’s not an easy thing to work with inmates.”
As a solution to the nursing challenge, NCS has since sent six of its correctional officers for nurse training, of which four completed their studies last year and are expected to be appointed any time soon.
Consultations are also currently taking place with the Office of the Prime Minister in an effort to come up with a plan for doctors to be paid a professional or danger allowance, but Shalulange said there is no assurance that the allowances will be approved, particularly given the budget cuts currently being experienced.
He admitted that the high staff turnover has had a negative impact on the provision of quality medical care to inmates.
“The shortage of doctors has had an impact on the general health care of inmates in our facilities because doctors are also responsible for testing the dietary requirements of inmates. That is why the NCS was taken to court sometime in 2013/14 and the court ordered the Ministry of Safety and Security to recruit more doctors.
“Money was made available to recruit, but now we are back to square one. We are afraid that we will be sued again, but we recruited and they resigned, so there is not much we can do. The key is that professional allowance for doctors,” Shalulange said.
He added that the Nelson Mandela rules state that the healthcare provided to inmates should be of the same standard as that which is provided in public hospitals, but with a shortage of medical personnel they might not provide adequate healthcare services to offenders.
He further said that although they have not really seen an increase in the number of deaths of inmates due to medical complications as a result of a shortage of medical personnel, most of the inmates now have to be transported daily to public hospitals, which is very risky.
“The more you take offenders to public hospitals the higher the risk of security incidences such as escapees and smuggling of contraband,” Shalulange said.
In December last year, NCS Commissioner General Raphael Hamunyela briefed President Hage Geingob and cluster ministers that a total 87 Namibia Correctional Services officers had resigned since January 2018.
He said this was a blow to the already short staffed institution as the resignations were making it difficult for the NCS to effectively carry out its overall mandate and its offender rehabilitation programmes.
The NCS has an official structure of 8643 to man the HQ and the 13 correctional facilities countrywide, however only 2594 positions were filled at the time.
Hamunyela said the shortfall has an implication on the security at the correctional facilities.
“We understand that there is no money, but we are very few and we are unable to manage our mandate and to ensure that we reduce reoffending,” he told the president during a meeting at State House.
Research conducted by the Legal Assistance Centre on prison rights and HIV/AIDS concluded that in Namibia transport of sick detainees to local hospitals is often infrequent and unreliable.
“Detention facilities can be a serious risk to defendants’ health and safety and are a potential infection point for disease, including HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
Regarding HIV-related health issues: testing and counselling procedures are not always readily accessible to inmates; some wardens are indifferent to HIV-positive inmates and others are openly hostile; discrimination against HIV-positive inmates by other inmates and wardens occurs, forcing many to forego testing to avoid the stigmatization faced by those who are HI positive; and accessing anti-retroviral (ARV) medication or seeing a doctor could sometimes take days, weeks or even months,” the research found out.
According to the researchers access to prison health staff is further complicated by the fact that nurses and counsellors, who typically work in the prisons part-time, often do not work in the prisons on weekends or evenings.