AMID plans to vaccinate the 3,700 prison population against covid19, Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds said no inmate will be forced to take the vaccine.
He was speaking on Friday at a news conference at his ministry to promote top-brass prison officers. Shamshudeen Mohammed and Mookish Pulliah were each promoted to Deputy Commissioner of Prisons after 39 years of service each, the former also named acting Commissioner of Prisons and the latter having recently retired.
Hinds said inmates were human beings and citizens and so should have access to the life-saving treatment of the vaccines.
He said Mohammed had just given him a report on a suggested inmate-vaccination programme which the minister hoped could be done as soon as practicable, after talks with the Ministry of Health.
Hinds said, "It's not as futuristic as one might think. It is happening live and direct."
Newsday asked if he anticipated any vaccine hesitancy in the prisons.
Hinds said, "I haven't had any particular feedback on that. I haven't had an opportunity to ingest the elements of the report that was just handed to me but we did hear the commissioner say vaccines will be available to all those who wish to have them in the system.
"The Government's policy is, we make the vaccines available. It is a voluntary exercise, and we urge the citizens, including the inmates, to access them, understanding that Trinidad and Tobago has done quite well, reasonably well, in managing the covid19 death threats and deaths."
Hinds said in the pre-vaccine phase, TT's response to the pandemic had been top-rated by Oxford University and the New York Times.
"So those who have access to the vaccine are well advised to have them."
He said as TT ramps up its protection due to vaccination, other measures such as border control will tend to fall off.
"Those who don't take the vaccine to get that personal protection in body, when these other, pre-vaccination protections fall away, you will be on your own. You will be exposed to this virus without the help of the society as you would have had prior to the vaccine.
"On that basis we urge the citizen to access this vaccine. But it is all voluntary."
Mohammed said 481 prison officers had been vaccinated, out of a 3,000-strong prison service, plus 418 retired officers largely with co-morbidities. This totalled about 900, he added.
"Like the rest of the country, we have our challenges, with (some) officers being reluctant to come forward and take the vaccine. However we did go on a campaign to inform officers as much as possible of the benefits of having the vaccine rather than not having it at all.
Hinds, however, said a month ago he had asked Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh for vaccines for prison officers, for whom 2,000 had been allocated.
"We may have to approach the Minister of Health to get some more vaccines, because the take-up rate is enthusiastic."
He said some prison officers might have instead been vaccinated at public clinics.
Newsday asked about vaccine hesitancy among prisoners, and the reasons for it.
Hinds replied that this was a phenomenon known to the world and TT.
"So the same reasons you might get outside of the prisons are the same reasons you might expect on the inside."
Mohammed said, "I know prison is a mystery because of the very nature and the security around it. However, our inmates do have access to social media, and they are aware of what's happening. As minister mentioned, (vaccine hesitancy) is not a problem for prison alone. It is a global problem, a global issue.
"Again, we cannot force them to take the vaccine. However, we can point out to them the benefits of having the vaccine, and as the Prime Minister said, the best vaccine to take is the one in front of you."
Newsday asked about TT's border control, given opposition claims all patrol boats have been parked up.
Hinds said, "Border protection is a matter of high importance to TT, as it is to all states. Measures are under way and continuing to improve our border-protection position for the people of TT."
Mohammed later told Newsday he did not know when the vaccinations would start, but hoped inmates would take advantage of what was being offered to them in their peculiar situation. He said within prisons, priority would be afforded to elderly inmates and those with morbidities such as diabetes.
He said inmate vaccination would help reassure his officers against fears about taking the virus to their homes.
Earlier in his address Mohammed hailed commissioner Dennis Pulchan on his wonderful job in protecting the prisons from covid19.
He said TT had only seven cases of inmates with covid19, plus 71 prison officers infected.
Mohammed said the prison service continues in its shift from a punitive to a restorative view of inmates, towards their one day rejoining society.
Also present were permanent secretary Gary Joseph and deputy permanent secretary Nataki Dilchan.