File picture: Independent Media

Pretoria - In what is regarded as a groundbreaking judgment for the rights of prisoners who are studying while in jail, a judge ordered that the Correctional Service’s policy that they may not use their personal laptops - minus a modem - in their cells, constituted unfair discrimination.

This ruling was sparked by three of the so-called Boeremag members - Dr Lets Pretorius and two of his sons, Drs Johan and Wilhelm Pretorius.

The three are serving between 20 and 30 years imprisonment at the Zonderwater Prison outside Cullinan. All three are enrolled at Unisa where they are furthering their studies.

They turned to the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, as the department refused them permission to take their laptops to their cells to study after lock-up time.

They, as the other inmates, are allowed to work on their computers in designated study centres in jail. But the three complained that the study hours were limited at these centres and as they were locked-up for the bulk of the day and evenings, they lost valuable study time.

The three launched the application on behalf of themselves, but their lawyer, Julian Knight, said he could see no reason why this judgment would not be applicable to other inmates in their situation.

“The department should consistently apply the Constitution regarding the rights of prisoners. We should not be forced to go to court for something which is a basic right. These people spend 18 hours a day in their cells which they could use towards their studies. A computer without a modem is basically a type writer,” Knight said.

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The department refused inmates the right to take their laptops with them to their cells, as they said it posed a security risk. 

Apart from mentioning an instance where a computer containing pornography was once found inside the cell of an inmate, the department could not give a single example of a computer posing a security risk.

The latest policy of the department is that only students who were enrolled for further studies, could have a personal laptop in prison, but these had to be kept at the study rooms. No computer was allowed in any cell.

Johan and Lets Pretorius said have previously had the use of their computers in their cells for a period of 11 years. Of those 11 years, they had access to modems for two years. Zonderwater now decided to enforce the policy of no computers in any cells.

The Pretorius family said they have in two months lost 52 hours of study time due to the fact that they could only use their computers when the study centre was open in the mornings.

Acting Judge J Swanepoel had some harsh words for the department and said it did not provide the court with a single shred of evidence where computers in cells posed a security breach. 

He said prisoners should be encouraged to study, as this contributed to their rehabilitation and it was in the interest of society that ex-prisoners could fully function in society.

The department said although the prisoners may not take their laptops into their cells, their right to study had not been infringed.  

Judge Swanepoel in this regard said: “This argument is in my view fallacious. The applicants have the right to study as much as they please...This right is being limited by the policy.”

He further said the department have instituted a policy that limits the basic rights of these applicants.

Judge Swanepoel said if he was asked to declare this policy inconsistent with the Constitution, he “may well have done so.”

He further lashed out at the department for telling the court that the Pretorius family had no right to turn to court as they have not exhausted their internal remedies. 

The family told the court that they time and again wrote to the head of the prison for permission to have their laptops in their cells, but when the officials bothered to reply, permission was always refused.

“Not only did the department not pay attention  to their complaints, the respondents have deliberately tried to mislead the court by alleging that the applicants did not exercise their internal remedies… blatantly misleading allegations have no place before courts.”

He meanwhile ordered that the Pretorius family may have their laptops in their cells for as long as they remained registered students. The department may at all times inspect their computers.

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