Thursday, October 29, 2020

Police cagey about implementation of social distancing in holding cells

If you wonder how the stringent coronavirus guidelines are being implemented in police holding cells, you won’t be getting precise answers from Dipheko Motube, the chief spokesperson of the Botswana Police Service.To a direct question that sought clarity on how social distancing is being implemented in police cells across the country, all Motube would say was that he couldn’t “share every little detail of what we are doing.”

Motube, who holds the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police, would also not “divulge” information about the size of an average holding cell in police station. As to whether those cells are well-ventilated, his response was, “Our facilities are ready for the COVID-19 compliance.”With COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic having reached every corner of the globe, the government has declared a full frontal counter-attack – even in the most improbable environments and situations. One such environment is evidently the holding cell in a police station. With Zimbabwe’s economy having slumped against the ropes for two decades now, thousands of its economic migrants end up in Botswana, some illegally.

With police and immigration officials periodically swooping down on places likely to harbour illegal immigrants, police holding cells seem the last place where it would be possible to implement social distancing – which are continuously being revised upwards in terms of distance. Where it takes the form of “extracting information” from suspects as well as handcuffing, subduing and fingerprinting them, police work is natively designed to defy coronavirus guidelines on social distancing.The COVID-19 guidelines also recommend that people should wash hands periodically with soap as well as ensuring proper ventilation to reduce the spread of pathogens. That is what has to happen in police cells across the country.While Motube gives firm assurance that the Service is implementing the VOVID-19 guidelines, another senior police officer says that it is impossible to do so.

The information he provides is that the size of cells vary from police station to police station and that the implementation of coronavirus guidelines can only be aspirational and not practical under the current circumstances.“Normal policing is still going on, criminal arrests are still being made and cells are still being filled up in such matter that it is impossible to maintain the social distancing that is being recommended to fight coronavirus,” says the police source. “The only way to observe the social distancing guidelines would be for the police to stop locking up suspects but that hasn’t happened.”From this same source, we learn that an average police cell is the size of a (“Phase 2”) low-cost Botswana Housing Corporation house, can accommodate five people and that its ventilation is far from adequate.Prisons, which have long had an overcrowding problem, would be facing a similar problem – which in turn would be compounded by some post-lockdown practices that defy social distancing.

A vivid description of the latter was given by the Bakgatla Regent, Kgosi Bana Sekai Kgafela, in 2012 following the detention of Kgosikgolo Kgafela II as well as his advisors and subjects at the Gaborone First Offenders. Recounting this ordeal to a kgotla meeting in Mochudi after their release, Sekai, who was Kgafela’s deputy at the time, said that spirits were cloud nine-high on prison grounds as inmates talked excitedly about the arrival of a new set of “women.” The message being reportedly passed around was that “Go tsile basadi ba basha.” Nothing on the record suggests the Bakgatla detainees were assaulted but the prison sub-culture Sekai was hinting defies social distancing protocols.

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