Johannesburg - Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola says the inmates who will be released as part of government's efforts to reduce the prison population because of Covid-19 fears, will be petty criminal offenders.
Lamola has moved to calm public fear following President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement that about 19 000 prisoners would be released on parole to ease the pressure on the correctional services system as the coronavirus spreads within the country's prisons.
Those who had committed violent crimes, such as murder, would not be considered for release.
Correctional services facilities are considered high-risk for the spread of the virus because of the confined spaces that prisoners are kept in, which makes it difficult for social distancing to be adhered to.
Correctional Services had said on Thursday that 172 cases had been recorded at its facilities across the country, including both inmates and officials. There have been 85 recoveries.
Lamola said the decision to consider the release of thousands of inmates was not taken lightly and was done following advice from experts. He said society's concerns were considered. He said the department's decision was mainly motivated by the country's overcapacity.
The country has 157 208 inmates with an accommodation capacity of 118 572, which includes 56 536 inmates who have been remanded.
There were also about 5000 inmates who were stuck in prison because they could not afford bail. He said overcapacity was calculated at 38 636.
The province with the highest level of overcrowding was the Eastern Cape at 54.88% followed by Gauteng at 52.10%.
Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the North West were at 39.18% and the Western Cape, 29.08%, while the KwaZulu-Natal province was at 25.97% and the Free State and Northern Cape at 0.45%.
Lamola said in the long term there were plans to increase prison capacity with 3006 additional beds over the next five years.
But for now, in dealing with Covid-19 and the possible deaths that could be caused by the virus, the department has decided to bring forward parole date consideration for petty criminals.
The minister said some inmates were already in compromising positions with weak immune systems which makes them more vulnerable to infection and possible death.
Lamola stressed that the announcement did not mean that inmates would be released immediately and that what has changed is the parole consideration dates have been brought forward.
The usual processes, such as assessments by the parole board of an inmates eligibility, will still play a role in whether an inmate is released.
The victims of the committed offence will also have to play a role, Lamola said.
Some of the criteria an offender must meet before being released includes having a specific home address and people who will receive the inmate.
Lamola said the questions on whether inmates could re-offend once they were released were considered and the statistics did not support this view. He said of the 14 647 inmates that had previously been released on parole 99% did not re-offend.
He said re-offenders will be sent back to prison if they violate the terms of their parole.
This entire process is expected to take up to 10 weeks, Lamola said.