Cape Town - Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron has slammed inhumane conditions in Pollsmoor Prison.
In a recently published report on a visit he paid the facility in April, he said he was “deeply shocked” by the “extent of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, sickness, emaciated physical appearance of detainees”. “The overall deplorable living conditions were profoundly disturbing.”
The inspection was part of the “prison visits and monitoring programme” of the Constitutional Court.
The report details abominable conditions in the awaiting trial section of the prison. The visited cells were “filthy and cramped” due to severe overcrowding – at 300 percent, it is the highest rate of overcrowding in the country.
There was no running hot water, systemic problems with plumbing caused blocked drains – which meant a bucket had to be used to flush the toilet – and some inmates had to use a sink to bathe and urinate in.
Detainees were sleeping three to a bed or on the floor, and bed sheets and blankets were either missing or filthy and lice-infested.
“Some detainees displayed rashes, boils, wounds and sores to us,” wrote the judge, who was accompanied by his clerks and 15 officials from the Department of Correctional Services.
The boils, wounds and other ailments were, according to inmates, often neglected by medical staff. The pharmacy at the detention centre was out of stock or had a shortage of “TB, hypertension, and diabetes medication”.
The awaiting trial inmates also complained of hunger; they received their second and last meal at 2pm, which meant they went without food for the rest of the day and night.
Lack of exercise was also a huge problem. Several inmates claimed they had not been let out of their cells for up to four weeks.
In 2012, the Constitutional Court held the government accountable for the negligence in tackling the spread of TB in Pollsmoor Prison, after former remand detainee, Dudley Lee, sued the government for his infection with the pulmonary disease. Three years later, not much seems to have changed. Cameron said most cells are poorly ventilated, dark, dingy and cold.
An inmate at the prison, who spoke to the Wits Justice Project on condition of anonymity, confirmed the deplorable conditions: “The last time I exercised was three months ago. We have nothing to do; there is no library and no books.”
The department’s regional commissioner, Delekile Klaas, who accompanied Cameron during his visit, stated that the inspection demanded “immediate responsive action”. Serious staffing shortages, as well as a fraught relationship with the Department of Public Works (DPW) were some of the causes he highlighted for the deplorable state of the prison. A DCS action plan to address the issues was attached to the report.
The Detention Justice Forum, would monitor the implementation of the plan: “The forum will use this report to hold the Department of Correctional Services accountable to the plan of action detailed therein.”
Manelisi Wolela, the department’s spokesman, said: “The challenge of overcrowding remains high in the Pollsmoor Remand Detention Centre.” He also indicated DCS was dealing with infrastructure problems with the DPW and it intended to bolster health care services in the prison.
* Ruth Hopkins is an investigative journalist working for the Wits Justice Project.