Cape Town - In a five-year period the number of detainees at Pollsmoor Prison tripled, often for petty crimes which do not warrant lengthy prison stays, a recent study shows.
The report, “Liberty not the only loss: The socio-economic impact of remand detention in the Western Cape”, found the impact goes beyond the detainee, as families are often
left in dire straits because an income is lost.
The Africa Criminal Justice Reform (ACJR) is based at the Dullah Omar Institute at UWC and the study was conducted through interviews with visitors of detainees at Pollsmoor to ascertain the impact remand detention has on families and dependants.
It found that women bear the brunt when a breadwinner is detained, plunging families into debt, forcing the sale of assets and children to drop out of school.
The ACJR’s Jean Redpath said between 1995 and 2000, pre-trial detainees increased from 20000 to 60000.
This coincides with the period when legislation regarding bail was tightened. She said the state should minimise interference in a person’s ability to earn a living and detention should be used as a last resort.
“Whereas a bail application was formerly treated as a matter of urgency, the law now provides that there is no entitlement to an after-hours bail application and that the bail hearing itself may be delayed for seven days at a time - previously a limit of one day for further investigation applied,” Redpath read from the report.
The number of people convicted of any crime has decreased since 2003. “Thus, decisions to detain before trial, grounded in these amendments, have not translated into convictions.”
At the launch there was a call for the government to “decriminalise trivial offences”.
“There is always a thought that families want their naughty family member detained,” said Redpath, who conducted similar studies in Zambia, Kenya and Mozambique.
The report found that wealthier people are not remanded “while the poorest are remanded and their families (are) unable to afford to visit”.
Sixty percent of admissions at Pollsmoor are for non-violent crimes and the report raised concerns about the high rate of detention for drug possession and immigration offences.
Redpath said immigration violations featured “high at Pollsmoor” and Hout Bay was a particular area
where people are picked up for such offences.
The report found “targeted and inconsistent policing”, as more than half of the 20000 people annually on remand at Pollsmoor come from only six police stations (Sea Point, Woodstock, Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Wynberg, Diep River and Kensington).
This is disproportionate to the reported crimes in these areas, the report states.
“Those kinds of inequality are concerning. What purpose can that serve? If you are caught with a ‘stop’ of dagga, depending on where it is,
the outcome could be different,”
Under-represented in terms of reported crimes are Nyanga, Gugulethu, Philippi-East and Khayelitsha.
Zia Wasserman, national prisons co-ordinator at Sonke Gender Justice (SGJ) said the country had “good
laws on paper, but it doesn’t play out in reality”.
In 2016, SGJ took the government to court to improve overcrowding at Pollsmoor, where inmates face a high prevalence of tuberculosis, HIV and violent attacks.
“Pollsmoor remand is one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country”, Wasserman said.
She said the government was in contempt of the court order which required it to reduce the number of prisoners at Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility by 150% within six months.
Venessa Padayachee, manager for advocacy and lobbying at the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders, said there were increased levels of crime and increased levels of poverty.
She said overcrowding was caused by over-incarceration, calling it a “hopeless cycle”. “It’s a crisis, actually. We need to really look at the law.”