Johannesburg - South Africa's prisons are overcrowded and overused, Correctional Services Minister Sbu Ndebele warned on Monday.

“Overcrowding can... be the consequence or lack of adequate correctional facilities' infrastructure, or a result of over use of imprisonment in the penal system,” Ndebele said.

“Over use of imprisonment includes indiscriminate, and even uncalculated, use of pre-trial detention.”

Ndebele was speaking in Boksburg at the national colloquium on overcrowding in prison centres.

He told delegates South Africa had the largest prison population in Africa, ranking number nine in the world.

South Africa had 310 inmates for every 100,000 people. By contrast Nigeria with a population of 166.3 million had only 31

inmates per 100,000 people.

Ndebele said about 30 percent of the prison population were “remanded detainees” - prisoners awaiting trial.

The total inmate population was almost 150,000 while the approved bed space was only about 120,000, resulting in an over-occupancy rate of about 25 percent.

To combat overcrowding, the department would be working with the department of justice to reduce the amount of time spent by detainees awaiting trial.

It would also consider more penalties for criminals that did not involve imprisonment for first-time offenders.

Judge Siraj Desai, chairman of the National Council of Correctional Services, said the problem of overcrowding had worsened in part due to the number of prisoners serving life sentences since 1995 increasing by almost 2400 percent.

There were 433 prisoners serving life sentences in 1995. The figure was now 10,314, a little over ten percent of the sentenced population.

He said this created problems on how these prisoners would be dealt with and added to the problem of prison overcrowding.

“What do you do to a lifer who enters the correctional system?” Desai asked.

When the country abolished the death penalty, it did not consider how it would deal with life sentencing.

Under current law, such prisoners were eligible for parole after 14 years - only after they convinced authorities that they would not re-offend.

“The likelihood is he will re-offend. Unless we are satisfied there is a minimal likelihood of him re-offending, we will not recommend the release of that offender,” said Desai.

The increasing number of prisoners sentenced to life was not due to the elimination of the death penalty.

Since 1960 to 1989, only 2000 people had been hanged by the state; not enough to account for the increase after the death penalty was abolished.

Desai argued that the increase in life imprisonment was because of several factors, including an increase in violent crime. - Sapa