US college student jailed in Cayman Islands for 4 months over COVID-19 violation

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In this illustration dated February 26, 2020, protective N-95 face masks lie on a table at an office in Washington, DC. (Photo by EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A U.S. college student and her boyfriend have been sentenced to four months in prison in the Cayman Islands for violating strict COVID-19 measures following a recent ruling that will be appealed, their attorney said Thursday.

Skylar Mack, 18, of Georgia, and Vanjae Ramgeet, 24, of the Cayman Islands, have been in prison since Tuesday, when the ruling was issued. They had both pleaded guilty, but their attorney, Jonathon Hughes, said he will argue for a less severe sentence next week.

“They’re two young people who have never been in trouble before,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “This is the first time they’ve had interaction with police, the courts, prison.”

Mack, who is enrolled as a pre-med student at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, arrived in the Cayman Islands on Nov. 27 and was supposed to undergo a two-week quarantine as mandated by the government, which electronically tracks anyone who arrives in the British Caribbean territory. However, she broke quarantine on Nov. 29 when her boyfriend picked her up to attend a water sports event, Hughes said.

After their arrest, a judge ruled the couple had to provide 40 hours of community service and pay a $4,400 fine. In addition, Ramgeet was ordered to a two-month curfew that would start at 7 p.m. But the prosecution appealed, arguing the punishment was unduly lenient and would not deter other possible violators. A higher court decided in favor of prosecutors, ruling on Dec. 15 that the couple be imprisoned immediately.

The Cayman Compass newspaper reported that Judge Roger Chapple said during Tuesday’s sentencing that the decision to violate safety measures was born of “selfishness and arrogance,” adding in its report that Mack spent seven hours out in public without a face mask or social distancing.

“This was entirely deliberate and planned, as evidenced by her desire to switch her wristband the day before to a looser one that she was then able to remove,” he was quoted as saying, referring to the electronic tracking device.

Hughes said the sentence is the first of its kind, adding that Mack’s family is concerned: “They’re worried for her because she’s in prison in a foreign country on her own. While this is something she brought on herself, it’s very distressing for her.”

The couple have been together for seven months. Hughes said he doesn’t know how they met. He noted that Ramgeet is a competitive jet skier like Mack’s father.

The girl’s grandmother, Jeanne Mack, told the AP that she reached out to U.S. President Donald Trump and received an email from a staffer saying the White House would look into the matter.

In her phone calls from prison, “the minute she starts talking, she starts crying,” she said. “She’s afraid that once she makes it back to the States, everyone will hate her.”

Mack, who lives outside of Atlanta, said her granddaughter decided she wanted to be a doctor at age 10 and asked for a suture kit at her birthday a couple of years later.

The couple are the first to be sentenced under an amended law targeting COVID-19 violators. The original law called for a $2,400 fine and up to six months in prison, while the recently amended law calls for a $12,000 fine and up to two years in prison.

Under the original law, a Canadian couple found guilty of violating coronavirus measures were ordered to pay a $1,200 fine each.

The Cayman Islands, a territory of nearly 62,000 people, has reported more than 300 coronavirus cases and two deaths.

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