Prisoners being ‘denied access’ to court
Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust founder Derrick Mdluli said that during the Covid-19 lockdown it had been a challenge throughout the country to get prisoners to appear in court on scheduled days.
“At lockdown level 5, 4 and 3 they were hardly taking prisoners to court. It is a mission to get prisoners to court. We had to go to court to demand a requisition for a prisoner to be brought to court to lodge his appeal,” he said.
Mdluli said that in another case a prisoner was still awaiting sentencing as he had not been able to appear in court.
“We have made five attempts to get him to court for his sentencing and he is not going to court. He also has a right to bring an application for his appeal. There are people who need to come to court for bail applications but the department is failing to bring them,” Mdluli said.
He said he was considering approaching the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, to ask him to intervene as the delays were a “gross violation” of prisoners’ human rights. He said the minister should consider releasing, under strict conditions, prisoners who had committed petty offences such as theft. He added that prisoners’ rights were also being violated because they were not allowed to have family visits during lockdown level 3.
KwaZulu-Natal Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Thulani Mdluli said the police were transporting prisoners to court under strict lockdown controls.
“The transportation of remand detainees to appear in courts is the sole responsibility of the SAPS as per their requisition. Even though we are facing an unprecedented situation during this pandemic, as the department we have accordingly applied all necessary regulations commanded by the state from the first pronouncement made by President Cyril Ramaphosa, which included suspension of visits and courts appearances by offenders to try to reduce the spread of the virus,” he said.
He added that Lamola had issued a directive in terms of regulation 4(2) under the Disaster Management Act on June 22 to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid-19 in prisons “where offenders are able to appear in courts under strict management by SAPS”.
“During level 5, we introduced videoconferencing with courts because they were also not allowed to render such services as per regulation, and we didn’t experience any complaints. And now we are in level 3 whereby all offenders are allowed to attend courts under strict management,” he said.
Access to Criminal Justice Reform project co-ordinator Lukas Muntingh said data on whether prisoners were being taken to court during lockdown was not available.
However, he said any possible inconsistency in the system where some prisoners might be able to access the courts and others were not, was a problem.
“You are presumed innocent until proved guilty and have a right to a fair and speedy trail, and your right to freedom should not be curtailed unreasonably,” he said.
National Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said visits had been suspended due to the danger of exposing inmates and officials to Covid-19.
“Our centres get more than 25000 visits in one weekend. Imagine the spread of the virus if we were to allow visits. That would be suicidal,” he said.