A file picture of  juvenile awaiting-trial prisoners hanging on the bars of holding cells at Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai. Picture: Brenton Geach
A file picture of juvenile awaiting-trial prisoners hanging on the bars of holding cells at Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai. Picture: Brenton Geach

‘Prisoners of poverty’ in overcrowded jails

By Michael Morris Time of article published Mar 12, 2016

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THOUSANDS of people who have not been convicted of a crime languish in already overcrowded jails simply because they are too poor to afford bail, a new survey warns.

Dubbed “prisoners of poverty” by the SA Institute of Race Relations, the study warns the country’s overpopulated prisons are being swelled by nearly 7 500 detainees who cannot afford to pay for their release.

The detainees’ plight has prompted the body to call on lawmakers to rethink bail policies to relieve the burden, not only on the poor, but also on the prison system and taxpayers.

The scale of the problem emerged from the institute’s comprehensive, more than 100-page statistical survey, Crime and Security, in its annual South Africa Survey 2016.

The document, drawing on official figures, outlines telling trends in everything from the scale of violent crime since 1995 (murder has declined, but robbery has soared), corruption, xenophobia, sentencing of convicted criminals and prison occupancy, to the profile of the private security industry and military procurement and deployments.

Over this period, murders had declined by 31 percent – from 25 965 in 1994/95 to 17 805 in 2014/15. Other categories that have declined are attempted murder (35 percent down), serious assault (15 percent) and common assault (19 percent), but robbery with aggravating circumstances has climbed 52 percent from 84 785 to 129 045 and common robbery 68 percent from 32 659 to 54 927.

The survey, which does not offer an analysis of trends or draw conclusions from variations in data, shows that 14.9 million people have fallen victim to contact crimes – murder, attempted murder, rape, assault and robbery since 1994.

The number of sentenced prisoners in jail has increased 29 percent (81 835 to 105 911) and remains high, but has dropped slightly (2 percent) from 133 percent in 1995/96 (space for 94 796 accommodating 125 750 prisoners) to 130 percent in 2013/14 (space for 119 890 housing 155 710).

The biggest increases in prisoners numbers by crime category have been for aggressive and violent crimes (up 72 percent from 34 811 to 59 961) and sexual crimes (up 145 percent from 8 078 to 19 812).

There has been a big change in the length of sentences.

The biggest category of prisoners in 1995 – 46 121 or 55 percent of the total prison population – was serving sentences of less than six months. This had declined by 2012 by 93 percent.

The number of prisoners serving 10 years or more has risen dramatically – 2 300 percent – from 1 620 in 1995 to 43 632 in 2012.

Of great concern to the Institute of Race Relations, however, is the high number of detainees the courts have decided can be released back into society pending their trial, but who are effectively trapped in jail because they cannot afford bail.

Viewed differently, while in 1995 there were 14 392 prisoners serving between five and seven years and only 433 serving life sentences, by 2013/14 the number of prisoners in the first category had declined to 7 908, while those serving life sentences had increased by 2 823 percent to 12 658.

In 2015 there were 7 468 detainees in this predicament.

The institute said figures showed about 76 percent of them could not afford bail set at amounts of R1 000 or less.

“These individuals are in many respects ‘prisoners of poverty’ and the IRR has urged lawmakers to reconsider policies relating to bail in South Africa.”

A breakdown of detainees who could not afford bail (based on figures from the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services’ annual report for 2014/15) shows:

l Some 3 339 remand detainees – or 45 percent – of the total could not afford bail of R500 or less.

l About 2 334 – or 31 percent – could not afford to pay between R500 and R1 000.

l Some 1 082 – or 14 percent – could not afford bail amounts set between R1 001 and R2 000.

l A further 589 – or 8 percent – could not pay bail amounts between R2 001 and R5 000.

l And 124 remand detainees – or 2 percent – were set bail amounts of more than R5 000 and could not afford to pay the amount.

Institute analyst Kerwin Lebone said: “The figures are concerning for several reasons. The first is that a great many people who have not been convicted of any crime are in jail simply because they are too poor to afford bail – they are what we describe as prisoners of poverty.

“These are people that the courts believe could be released back into society pending trial but cannot afford their freedom.

“Secondly, the presence of so many remand detainees in our jails compounds the prison overcrowding crisis faced by the Department of Correctional Services.

“And, thirdly, there is a significant cost to the taxpayer in housing this number of remand detainees and these resources could be more effectively employed elsewhere in the criminal justice system.”

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