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Durban - An Estcourt couple are suing the minister of correctional services for the “unlawful transfer” of their son – serving a life sentence for murder – from Westville Prison to a facility 800km away.

Sooresh Singh and his wife, Shaidabanu, said they were unable to afford the 800km trip to see their son, Sanjay, who had been moved to Goedemoed Prison in Eastern Cape in October last year without their knowledge.

The couple had gone to visit Sanjay at Westville Prison and were informed he had been transferred the day before.

In opposing papers filed in the Durban High Court on Monday, the Department of Correctional Services said the Medium B cells at Westville Prison had been identified as being among the most overcrowded in the country. A national task team had initiated the transfers of more than 50 inmates.

Medium B’s acting head, Gert Coetzee van Rensburg, said it was Singh’s responsibility to update his details on the prison system as he had registered Ladysmith as his birthplace.

He apparently gave a Krugersdorp address for his next of kin.

The Ladysmith High Court had sentenced Sanjay Suresh Singh, 37, to life imprisonment in September 2004 for murder and 15 years for robbery with aggravating circumstances. Details of the crime were not revealed in court papers.

His parents described him as a model prisoner who was studying towards a criminology degree through Unisa. When he is released, they said, he planned to live in Newlands West with his fiancée, Shereen Naidoo.

Singh’s ex-wife and child live in Pietermaritzburg and have allegedly also been unable to visit him since his transfer.

His parents have asked the Durban High Court for him to be returned to Westville Prison within seven days of the court order being granted. However, the matter was adjourned indefinitely after the department filed opposing papers on Monday.

Outside court, Singh’s counsel, advocate William Nicholson, said that once his responding papers were filed, the matter would be placed on the opposed roll to be argued.

Singh senior said his son had only been informed about his transfer on the day he was to be moved, and given five minutes to gather his personal belongings. This had forced him to abandon some of his belongings, such as his study material, he said.

As a result, the father said, Singh could not write his final examinations because the necessary arrangements had not made at Goedemoed Prison and he did not have all his course material to prepare.

Singh’s mother arrived to visit him the next day only to be allegedly told –incorrectly – that he had been transferred to Johannesburg.

They felt the transfer was “not lawful or reasonable” and said Singh had been making a conscientious effort to rehabilitate himself by furthering his studies. The couple said there was no justification to transfer him based on conduct.

They said they were both also ill and therefore could not travel.

Naidoo apparently visited her fiancé in December at a cost of R7 340 for her flight and vehicle hire.

“In the circumstances, (Sanjay’s) punishment is more severe than intended by the honourable court and more difficult than his co-inmates,” Sooresh Singh said in his affidavit. “The vast distance between Aliwal North (in Eastern Cape) and his family is also causing hardship for his family.”

The couple also felt the department had acted unconstitutionally.

In opposing papers, Van Rensburg said a national task team had been established to identify and offer solutions to overcrowded prisons, and it had initiated transfers to facilities around the country.

In October, Westville Prison had a prison population of 4 205, almost double the number of inmates it was approved to accommodate, he said. Singh was one of 54 inmates transferred.

Most were from Durban.

Goedemoed can accommodate 780 inmates and holds about 872.

Van Rensburg said Singh was not yet eligible for parole consideration and his transfer was for security reasons due to the overcrowding. He was found to be medically fit to be transferred and there were no academic commitments tying him to Durban, he said.

He said prisoners were consulted, advised of their transfer and given an opportunity to raise complaints. Singh, he said, had been interviewed and had not raised a complaint.

Van Rensburg said the order sought might be used as a precedent by other transferred inmates to refuse to be transferred, leading to the overcrowding problem still not being addressed.

Derrick Mdluli, director of Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust, said he had been inundated with complaints from KZN prisoners about transfers outside the province. Overcrowding was the main reason, but he felt there was place at other KZN prisons where inmates could be transferred.

Mdluli said it was a gross violation of human rights for inmates to be transferred to facilities far away from their families.

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