Johannesburg – A prisoners’ rights group and the Department of Correctional Services are at loggerheads over the threat posed by Covid-19 after an Independent Media investigation has revealed overcrowding in the country’s jails.
The SA Prisoners’ Organisation for Human Rights (Sapohr) has expressed concern about the high rate of Covid19 infections, which have claimed the lives of inmates and prison warders at various centres
Awaiting trial and sentenced prisoners have raised frustration about alleged serious human rights violations, including torture, murder, overcrowding and provision of sub-standard meals at correctional centres across the country.
Sapohr has turned to WhatsApp groups to expose the alleged inhumane conditions, which inmates are allegedly subjected to. The organisation has posted pictures of overcrowded jail cells, which also shows a large group of inmates crammed on the floor where they sleep.
Sapohr, whose WhatsApp group has about 300 participants, said through its spokesperson Golden Miles Bhudu that it had resorted to this platform after realising that its numerous complaints to the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) fell on deaf ears.
DCS spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo, however, said only 58 inmates had died since early last year while 130 officials had succumbed to infection, which they contracted outside prisons.
Nxumalo accused Sapohr of being opportunistic as he downplayed the overcrowding matter. He said the combined numbers of inmates across the country had dropped from 160 000 to 140 000. The total number of beds in all country’s centres is 121 000.
Nxumalo, however, conceded that the number of remanded inmates – “above 45 000” – remained problematic.
Sapohr, established 33 years ago, has undertaken to campaign against prison overcrowding and inhumane conditions, and has told government to start a dialogue on how to improve the situation.
The 2019/20 annual report by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) shows that the prison population is still far above the correctional services’ capacity. Johannesburg Correctional Centre is 186% overcrowded and is leading the pack with a population of 1 456 inmates while it only has space for 582 beds.
Of concern is the rise in the remand population from 43 799 awaiting-trial inmates in 2017 to the 51 596 reported by the DCS on March 31 last year.
The remand population constitutes about 30% of the total inmate population. Of those awarded bail, 74% cannot afford bail of R1 000 or less.
“The number of inmates serving sentences of life imprisonment has radically increased. In 1994, only 400 were serving life sentences. Today, that number has ballooned … to more than 16 000,” reads the JICS report.
Inspections at the Zonderwater Correctional Centre in January and Johannesburg Management Centre, during the lockdown, reflected that they seemed constrained focusing on incarceration over rehabilitation. The report found this a consequence of the DCS’s budget, which reserved just 10% for rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.
The report revealed there were 281 unnatural deaths of inmates across the country, 82 in the 2017/18 financial year, 103 in 2018/19 and 96 in 2019/20. They included inmate-on-inmate assaults and official-on-inmate assaults.
Sapohr has identified the Tswelopele Correctional Centre in Northern Cape, Pietermaritzburg’s New Prison and Durban’s Westville Prison in KwaZulu-Natal as being among those where the violation of offenders’ rights is prevalent.
Other centres which have been implicated in wrongdoings are the Groenpunt Correctional Centre in Free State, St Albans Correctional Centre in the Eastern Cape and Modderbee in Gauteng.
Photos shared on WhatsApp by Sapohr show torn linen and mattresses given to offenders, dilapidated prison walls, broken windows and leaking toilets. Bhudu said the JICS was the only state institution that paid attention to Sapohr and inmates’ concerns. He said the messages on the WhatsApp group were not fake news and needed to be thoroughly probe by state institutions.