Pretoria - The Department of Correctional Services has admitted that conditions in which children are held are still poor, despite a significant drop in their number.
Following a damning report by the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative on the treatment of child detainees, deputy director for remand detention Britta Rotmann told Independent Newspapers this week there were still challenges in ensuring their wellbeing.
The number of children in detention had dropped from 771 in remand detention in March 2009 to 163 countrywide by January 8 this year. Another 282 sentenced children had been housed by the same date, according to Rotmann.
The report – compiled by the initiative’s co-founder Lucas Muntingh and researcher Clare Ballard – revealed violations of children’s rights by prison officials after a study of 41 facilities across the country. The findings included that 75 453 children had been charged by the police from April 2010 to March 2011 and an average of 4.63 per 100 000 children were in detention using 2009 population statistics and 2010 custody figures.
Children spent an average of 284 days in detention after sentencing, while there were an average of 8.3 deaths per 1 000 children in custody per year, including those up to 19 years old.
Children were detained for an average of 120 days while awaiting trial; 39 percent had not received any visitors for three months; the majority of officials dealing with children had not received the relevant training; and, education facilities were not sufficient or available in some instances, among other findings.
Rotmann said officials who dealt with juveniles were selected for their “aptitude to work with children”.
She said while the staff might “not always have formal qualifications that prepare them to work with children, the social workers that work with them are certainly qualified”.
“Plans are afoot to develop a training course that officials who are entrusted with children can attend,” she said.
Rotmann blamed the challenge of schooling remand detainee children on “the erratic nature of the time they spend in detention”.
Children serving sentences had the opportunity to attend school inside the correctional centre in accordance with their individual sentence plans, and although those serving fewer than two years did not have sentence plans, it did not mean they did not have access to services.
Muntingh said, however, that the findings of his research had implications for the government.
Among them was that South Africa was due to report to the UN committee on the rights of children.
“But the more immediate implication is that somebody may sue the government to ensure there is compliance,” said Muntingh.
“The department has focused so much on developing the white paper on remand detention and (is) not complying with the Correctional Services Act.
“It is the violation of that act that lands them in court,” Muntingh said. “Since 2004, when the act came into force, the department has not given sufficient attention to strict and narrow compliance.”
Instead, it had focused on matters such as renaming prisons.
Child law expert Ann Skelton said although the number of children in prisons had dropped significantly over the past decade, “for the child in prison it doesn’t assist them”. The issue was “part of the bigger problem of prisons in the country”, such as the lack of people trained to deal with children, she said.
“I would rather see fewer children going to prison and going to alternative facilities such as the child and youth care centres, but that lies in the hands of the courts,” she added.
Skelton said an effective complaints mechanism needed to be put in place to ensure that children were given the opportunity to raise their gripes with authorities if the need arose.
Muntingh said the decrease in the number of child prisoners was a positive trend, but it was a double-edged sword because the government could not claim there was overcrowding for child prisoners.
Rotmann said although visits to children in remand and sentenced facilities were considered crucial, the department was “hampered by distances”, because there were very few child detainees and the need to keep them separate from the adult population meant fewer facilities accommodated children.
Children would often use court appearances for visits with families since the courts were generally closer to the communities.