'Cruel and inhumane': judge slams SA prison conditions
Report reveals shocking state of affairs with rampant overcrowding at 81 facilities
Prisoners are not animals and prisons are not zoos.
Those were the opening and closing words from Judge Johann van der Westhuizen, who headed the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) that looked into the living conditions of prisoners at 81 of the country’s 243 correctional centres.
Van der Westhuizen insisted that no matter how “horrendous” their crimes were, prisoners still had the right to live with dignity.
The report, released in Pretoria on Thursday, found shocking conditions with rampant overcrowding at the 81 centres visited by inspectors during the 2017/18 financial year.
There was also special mention of what the judge referred to as the “cruel and inhumane” way in which many mentally ill inmates are being accommodated in prisons. He said many of the correctional facilities’ woes stemmed from overcrowding.
On March 31 2018, SA’s 243 correctional centres accommodated 164,129 inmates. The capacity (available bed space, including simple foam mattresses on the floor) was 118,723.
The population of sentenced offenders was 117,870 (72% of the total) and the remand population was 46,259 (28% of the total). “Thus, the prison population remains unacceptably high.”
Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha said the “problem of overcrowding” had been identified as a “key challenge”.
JICS spokesperson Emerantia Cupido said the organisation could only make recommendations on how to fix the problem. “Our hands are tied. We hand over quarterly and annual reports to the minister [Michael Masutha] but the law does not allow us to take it further. We ask the minister to fix issues and from there the department needs to implement the recommendations.
Van der Westhuizen said the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) needed to act on the JCIS recommendations.
“The non-compliance by DCS is a threat to JICS’s oversight effectiveness,” the judge said.
The judge strongly emphasised two themes in his report: the situation of mentally ill inmates and the state of prison infrastructure.
He said many mentally ill inmates ended up in prison as an interim measure because state mental facilities were overcrowded and had long waiting lists.
There are 1‚200 inmates with mental illnesses. According to the JICS the majority are kept with the general inmate population without adequately trained mental care staff. The judge emphasised that the situation of mentally ill inmates has become urgent and that their suicide rate is increasing as a result.
Turning to infrastructure, he said inspections of prison structures‚ including housing units‚ ablution areas‚ plumbing (running water‚ geyser systems)‚ electrical supply‚ kitchens and medical areas showed that 54 of the 81 facilities required urgent maintenance.
“We have seen kitchens that have for years been functioning without legally required health certificates; cells where beds have been taken away and inmates had to sleep on mattresses on the floor …
“We have seen the offices of a head of centre where rainwater regularly streamed through the ceiling down the wall; and ‘state of the art’ centres without hot water, where single cells cannot be used, allegedly because heat pumps and locking systems are too sophisticated for locally available engineers and technicians to repair.
“We have been made aware of the lack of uniforms and shoes for inmates, leaving them with scant sandals bought from local stores, exposing bare skin to the harshness of winter in some of the coldest parts of our country,” Van der Westhuizen added.
DCS spokesperson Logan Maistry said the department “fully supports the independence of the JICS”.
“DCS has noted reports on the JICS 2017/18 annual report, and will cooperate fully to ensure corrections in the relevant areas. Our relationship with JICS is one of collaboration to create better corrections for a safer South Africa.
“In the coalface of a shrinking fiscus we will continue to do everything possible to ensure realisation of the ideals espoused in the National Development Plan 2030.”