Day of hell at Fort England Hospital

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Nightmare for psychiatric patients and staff as guards stage sit-in over pay.

Confined to their cells for two days and two nights, dozens of patients screamed through barred windows and banged on doors to be let out as terrified staff mopped up urine streaming into the passageways at Fort England Psychiatric Hospital’s Maximum Security Unit (MSU) last Thursday. When security guards left their posts in protest against late payment, nurses and cleaning staff were unsupported as they cared for patients from all over South Africa  accused of serious violent crimes and considered dangerous. They are under observation in the Hospital’s forensic unit in preparation for criminal trials.

Grocott’s Mail can confirm that on Thursday 26 November, a member of the public was able to enter the hospital gate unchallenged and wander freely throughout the hospital premises, including into the complex that houses close to 50 people designated high risk. Staff in other wards were likewise unsupported by security as they cared for around 300 patients – many of them challenging and unstable – in other sections of the hospital that day.

Security guards spent much of the day gathered outside the hospital gate on Thursday, as they awaited an explanation from their employer for why they hadn’t been paid the previous day.

Earlier last week, staff employed by a food and cleaning services contractor had similarly engaged in a sit-in at the hospital, throwing out meal schedules along with other routines.

Patients in the high risk section are brought every morning into an enclosed courtyard, where they are able to remain outside under supervision by security staff. They also routinely have their three daily meals in a common area.

On Thursday, none of this happened. Their last “release” had been on Wednesday morning and it was only Friday morning, two full days later, with security guards back at their stations, that they were able to leave their cells at all.

“You can imagine,” said a source with close knowledge of the situation at the hospital. “These are volatile patients who rely on stability and routine to help them through the day.

“You can just imagine how frustrated they were – hot, locked up all day without the chance to leave their cells, let alone exercise.”

While they have toilets in their cells, they had urinated in fury against their cell doors, the source explained, causing a :”river of wee” to form in the passage.

Security guards gather outside the gates of Fort England Hospital on Thursday 26 November during a day-long stoppage over pay. Photo: Sue Maclennan

Pay queries

“We are very upset because we haven’t been paid yesterday as we were supposed to be,” one of the security guards told Grocott’s Mail. “What makes it worse is that this is not the first time. In fact it’s the third time. This is not acceptable.”

Madolo Security is the company contracted to provide services at Fort England. They employ 98 security guards to cover a day and night shift across the hospital.

Speaking to Grocott’s Mail on Friday, General Manager Zukisani Mohaji said the company operates nationally and has offices in Queenstown and Mthatha, as well as Makhanda. He confirmed the security guards at Fort England were supposed to be paid on 25 November.

“They were paid, but the money was not correct,” Mohaji said. “The company checked yesterday why this was so and it turns out that pay query forms were not submitted in time by the supervisors. So they didn’t receive the full amount, including previous pay queries.”

Mohaji said the company had also had a problem with the capacity of its finance system. :”It did not capture everything it was supposed to,” he said.

The bank had come and increased that capacity.

Mohaji admitted it was true that this was the third time staff had been paid late, or incorrectly.

“The first time, our finance officer contracted Covid so he wasn’t able to make payments,” Mohaji said. “The second time, Mr Madolo himself was affected by Covid so he wasn’t available to authorise the payments.”

Madolo bosses met with Fort England management and Department of Health officials on Thursday afternoon in an attempt to resolve the impasse. By 5pm on Thursday, guards had returned to their stations, according to one of the protesting guards.

“Everything is resolved now,” they said early on Friday morning. “They came and explained to us what is happening and everyone is back at work now. They were back by 5pm [Thursday]”

‘End outsourcing’

In response to Thursday’s events, the National Health and Allied Workers Union has demanded consequence management and renewed their call for an end to outsourcing of security, cleaning and food services in public institutions.

Regional Secretary Mlungiseleli Ncapayi said, “It’s unfortunate that again our workers have been left vulnerable. With the hospital unattended, the public, staff and patients are all at risk.

“A stoppage like this means anyone can come in and create havoc.  In addition, these patients are a special kind of patient and they need extra attention to keep them and the staff safe.”

There needed to be consequence management, Ncapayi said.

“If a privately contracted company is not performing, the Department needs to terminate its contract.”

And that was the problem, Ncapayi said.

“If it’s workers, the Department is quick to punish them for non-performance. If it’s a service provider, they just get a slap on the wrist.

“There’s a failure to enforce the terms of the contract,” Ncapayi said. “As Nehawu, we can no longer condone what is happening.”

Ncapayi reiterated the union’s call to end outsourcing.

“The Department should stop outsourcing security and cleaning services,” he said. “This just brings instability. It is also exploitation.”

Consequences

Grocott’s Mail has asked the Department of Health about the terms of the contracts with service providers at Fort England Hospital, what consequences there would be for the companies for failing to provide their services during those times, and what plan hospital management had made to protect patients, staff and members of the public should security guards again leave their posts.

No response had been received by the time of publishing this and we will include the Department’s response when we receive it.

  • This article was written in collaboration with the Public Service Accountability Monitor.

HERE ARE THE QUESTIONS WE’VE ASKED THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
1. What measures are in place to ensure the safety of the patients and nursing staff at Fort England should it happen that the security guards leave their posts again?

2. What measures have been out in place to ensure that Fort England is cleaned and the patients fed should the private catering and cleaning staff not be paid in time again?
3. What are the requirements for security companies that work in mental health facilities? Are they required to have some training in dealing with mentally ill patients?
4. This was the third time payment to staff was delayed due to reduced capacity in the contractor’s finance and administration division for various reasons. Does the DoH’s contract with the company specify terms and conditions regarding under what circumstances the guards can vacate their stations? Will the Department apply any consequences to the company given that it failed to provide security for (I understand) a full shift on Thursday 26 November?
5. Please may I receive details regarding the awarding of the security and food and cleaning services contracts at Fort England as follows:
– The date when the tender was advertised,;
– Details of the tender specifications;
– Which bids were shortlisted;
– A copy of the decision arrived at by the bid adjudication committee to award the contract to the service provider;
– The letter of appointment.
6. Please may I receive copies of all declarations of interest completed and submitted by the senior management service of Fort England in the past five years.

We will share the DoH’s response to these questions as soon as we receive them.

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