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SA's prison hell: crime, overcrowding, suicides and struggling staff

File picture: Willem Law/African News Agency/ANA

File picture: Willem Law/African News Agency/ANA

Published Oct 12, 2018


Cape Town - It's been described as hell and a microcosm of the country. These are our prisons, where crime is rife and where close to 500 inmates have died, 82 of unnatural causes.

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) released its report on Thursday and it describes a situation of overcrowding and funding shortages for the inspectorate to do its job, leading to a visit to a prison only every three years.

It found that suicide is the most common type of unnatural death in the prisons with the majority occurring in Gauteng. The province recorded 10 suicides, Western Cape four, Eastern Cape two, KwaZulu-Natal five, Free State and Northern Cape four, and three others in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West.

During the 2017/18 financial year, 487 inmates died from natural causes, representing about 310 natural deaths per 100.000 of the inmate population.

Gauteng recorded the highest number of deaths, at 119.

Commenting on the report, Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union spokesperson Richard Mamabolo said the figures should be no surprise.

“Anything can happen in prisons these days. This we all know. Almost all prisons are hell and the staff have to endure these challenges every day. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services has for years made these recommendations. The government knows that the prisons are overcrowded and they are doing very little to address the situation. It cannot continue like this,” he said.

Asked about the impact on staff, Mamabolo said: “We don’t even get complaints anymore. We simply hear of resignations. And that is the sad reality we are living with. The prison population is growing at a rapid pace, and the workers at prisons are diminishing in numbers.”

Inspecting Judge of the JICS Justice Johann van der Westhuizen said inspectors visited 81 correctional centres during the 2017/2018 financial year. “South Africa’s 243 correctional centres accommodate more than 160 000 inmates, including more than 16 000 who are serving life sentences. Owing to financial and staff constraints, JICS is able to visit each of these centres only once every three years,” he said.

Judge Van der Westhuizen said the budgetary constraints remained a significant challenge.

“This is unacceptable, whether legally justified or not. The unilateral allocation impacts on, for example, the ability to travel to correctional centres far from JICS offices.

“The practice of (the Department of Correctional Services) handling core aspects of JICS’s functioning capacity holds the potential for serious and even deliberate undermining of JICS and its mandate to oversee the treatment of inmates in correctional centres,” he said.

In the Western Cape, correctional facilities were on average 45.4% overpopulated. The total bed space in the province is 20 643, while in excess of 30 000 inmates were incarcerated.

The Western Cape High Court in December 2016 ordered Correctional Services to transfer a large number of sentenced inmates from the overcrowded facilities at Pollsmoor to other centres across the country.

Facilities inspected in the Western Cape with overcrowding of 90% or more are prisons in Allandale, Ladismith, Uniondale and Beaufort West.

Sonke Gender Justice prisons co-ordinator Zia Wasserman said overcrowding created an environment for diseases such as TB, HIV and leptospirosis.

Provincial Correctional Services spokesperson Simphiwe Xako said the department was a microcosm of the broader South African society.

“The rise in crime in communities will inevitably lead to a high offender population,” he noted.

Cape Argus

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