Johannesburg - “It’s been a rough year for prisoners with the terrible fear of contagion.
“It’s been a rough year for correctional personnel whom we require to guard our prisoners and it’s been a rough year for the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) and its staff,” said inspecting judge Justice Edwin Cameron, acknowledged as the “prisoners’ champion”.
Overcrowding and fear of the spread of Covid-19 in prisons greatly troubled the respected former Constitutional Court judge.
“We were initially excluded from the exempted personnel under the emergency regulations, we took it up with the minister and deputy, and it was corrected. Within a few months we were able to resume our visits,” he said in a briefing to parliament’s portfolio committee for justice and correctional services.
“The concerns we place before you are familiar concerns – overcrowding. I know some members of your committee said they have reservations about presidential intervention. From my point of view as inspecting judge, I greatly welcome what the president said in December in terms of remission and what he did on 8 May to bring forward the parole date of a large number of prisoners.”
Cameron said the other main feature was Covid-19, on which the inspectorate had the gravest misgivings about the capacity of the correctional system to deal with the pandemic.
“Our worst nightmares have not been fulfilled. That does not mean we have reason for self-satisfaction. It didn’t have the catastrophic effect we feared. We thought there would be massive outbreaks in every prison, not unreasonably.”
Another concern was the decline in mandatory reporting. “The statute requires correction personnel structures to make reports to us on the use of force, isolation, mechanical restraint and of course on death, because of systemic issues, there’s been a marked downturn in mandatory reporting. At the same time there has been disturbing indication of increasing violence and I would be failing in my duty as inspecting judge if I did not draw your attention to it,” he said.
“We are really worried there have been incidents in Westville, continuing incidents in St Albans and elsewhere. We fear some of that level of violence is manageable were the systems to be corrected. For example, there is chronic dysfunction in the physical state of prison infrastructure, that should be remedied if we had a competent and responsive department of public works. Another area we have persistent worries is the under-provision of education and rehabilitation, those are the main worries we have.”
Cameron said JICS was now part of the internationally regulated Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Opcat) under the Human Rights Commission (HRC). It was an independently functioning part of the Opcat national preventive mechanism. JICS had a business case to argue for its autonomy within the civil service, regardless of any legislation or Constitutional Court outcome.
JICS also had a draft bill which it would be submitting for the committee’s oversight. JICS had gone to the Concourt on March 2, and seven months later still did not have a judgment. The judgment sought was to confirm the order of the High Court which had struck down certain provisions of the Correctional Services Act because they were insufficiently protective of JICS’s independence.
Committee posed questions around statistics on “natural deaths (other)”, questioning whether these were not suicides, and asking for an explanation on how deaths were classified. It wanted to know whether prisoners who were matriculating would be able to write exams at the end of the year, and whether figures the JICS received from Department of Correctional Services reports were reliable.
In response to questions around the effectiveness of the manual reporting system, JICS expressed the hope the e-correctional system would go a long way to remedying this.
Concerns were raised around the increasing violence in correctional facilities, and the committee wanted to know why it rarely heard of cases of assault by officials on inmates.
Vickash Misser, chief executive at JICS, said of the 37 inspections scheduled in the fourth quarter, five were not conducted due to the lockdown. In the first quarter, of the 36 scheduled, only seven were conducted due to Covid-19 restrictions. During the first quarter, there were 246 Covid cases. This translated to about one infected person per centre as of October 6.
* Edwin Naidu is a journalist at Wits Justice Project (WJP). Based in the journalism department of Wits University, the WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to SA’s criminal justice system.