How one woman convinced an entire Bloemfontein prison to vaccinate

How one woman convinced an entire Bloemfontein prison to vaccinate
Patricia Setlai, the head of Grootvlei Medium B prison in Bloemfontein. (Photo: Lihlumelo Toyana)

Grootvlei prison boss Patricia Setlai says she won’t stop until she reaches a 97% Covid-19 vaccination rate.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

After weeks of intensive work, Patricia Setlai, the head of Grootvlei Medium B prison in Bloemfontein, received welcome news – in just 48 hours, 92% of the inmates under her management had been vaccinated against Covid-19.

When asked how she achieved this, Setlai laughs. “We have a good relationship with the inmates,” she says. “I work on it every day.”

Apart from managing the prison, Setlai is also a mother and a grandmother. She started her career in the Department of Correctional Services more than 20 years ago when she was appointed as a correctional officer in March 2000. She rose through the ranks, working in the clinic and handling sport, recreation and art at the prison.

“At that time, we didn’t have a school at the Medium B prison. Many of the prisoners were illiterate so we taught them how to read and write,” she says.

After a stint in human resources, she was promoted to senior correctional officer.

In 2010, she was transferred elsewhere for a while but three years later she came back and today she is the head of Grootvlei’s Medium B prison.

“When we heard about the virus, it was scary. During the day it was easy to control the prisoners and enforce social distancing and wearing masks. But it was always going to be difficult in the evenings because that is when we lock them up.

“We heard at the bigger centres how offenders were testing positive for [Covid-19]and how they had started to die.

“It is my responsibility to protect inmates and to see to it that they are rehabilitated,” she said. “I told myself I must make a plan to handle this situation.”

In his speech at the launch of the vaccine programme for inmates in July, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola hinted at the gravity of the situation they expected in prisons due to Covid-19.

“Large, explosive outbreaks in crowded institutional settings remain a major ongoing risk not only for our centres, but for the society at large. Thus far, this pandemic has affected correctional centres’ ability to function.

“It has heightened the risk of infections seeding outside of correctional centres through interactions between correctional officials and communities, court visits, hospital admissions, and the admission and release of inmates,” he said.

Lamola said the department was responsible for vaccinating 140,319 inmates.

He said they were running awareness campaigns in correctional centres to persuade sceptical inmates and officials.

“Our observation is that, as more information was provided, those who were wary of vaccination became more at ease and volunteered to be candidates,” Lamola said.

Setlai started her education campaign soon after the news of a possible Covid-19 epidemic broke.

Patricia Setlai made sure there was someone who could talk to each inmate in their home language. (Photo: Lihlumelo Toyana)

“First, we started making sure that the cells were cleaned really well. We were conducting inspections. Then we talked about wearing masks and trying to enforce social distancing. Now it is a lifestyle for the inmates. We struggled at the start but they are doing well now.

“When the vaccine came, we started preparing the prisoners to take the jab. It was not easy. But you have to start somewhere.

“You must have a good working relationship with offenders. It assisted us. We conducted our chats every morning and we spoke to them daily about the vaccine and Covid-19. Every day we said they must ask us questions and we brought the medical staff to talk to them.

“I would tell them to think of the day they will be released. I said they must get protection against Covid-19 for that day.

“It was not difficult for them to believe what we told them. There was a relationship of trust,” Setlai says.

She also made sure there was someone who could talk to each inmate in their home language: “If someone spoke Afrikaans or Sesotho, we talked to them in Afrikaans and Sesotho.”

She says that when they were getting ready to administer the vaccine to inmates, only 88% of the prison population indicated that they were interested in getting the jab.

“But I never stopped,” she laughs.

On the first day, 56% of inmates were vaccinated; by the second day, this number was 92%. “When I spoke to them on the first day of the vaccinations, I said to those who got the jab: I appreciate what you did as responsible citizens. Then I encouraged those who were vaccinated to go and encourage others.” She says she won’t be able to get 100% coverage in the prison because some inmates have health issues and doctors have advised they do not get the vaccine. She is pushing for at least 97%.

“It is a relief, really, that so many came forward,” she says. “I tell them I am happy and I appreciate their cooperation. They never gave us a problem. They must trust you – you have to show them. You must be consistent.”

She says she got her second Pfizer vaccine on 2 August. “It made my job easier. I got it before the offenders so I could also tell them that I myself got the vaccine. Many were very scared of it. They thought it would make you sick.

“To handle this I went to everyone who got the vaccine to check with them every morning how they were feeling.

“I told them all the time, ‘If you take the vaccine, you will know that you are safe’. I tell them every morning: ‘I don’t want you to die in prison’,” she says. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

home delivery

Say hello to DM168 home delivery

Get your favourite newspaper delivered to your doorstep every weekend.

Delivery is available in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.