Prisons are ‘ticking time bombs’ over parole hearing delays
Prisoners warn they will riot if correctional services and parole board members don't settle their admin squabble
SA’s prisons are “ticking time bombs” as thousands of prisoners’ parole hearings are delayed because of administrative battles between the correctional services department and parole board members.
Since December 1 only two of the country’s 53 parole boards, which hear nearly 8,000 parole applications a month, have been holding hearings, Groenpunt prison parole board chairperson Hlaoli Litsoane told Times Select.
Department spokesperson Logan Maistry confirmed that the contracts of the board chairmen and vice-chairmen expired on 30 November.
“To have a full board you need a chairman and vice-chairman. There is a currently a process of appointing new vice-chairmen and chairmen,” said Maistry.
Each parole board is staffed by one correctional services officer, a police officer and three civilians. The civilians are employed by the minister, while the department administers their contracts.
In 2005, the Jali Commission recommended that to prevent department officials interfering in parole hearings and decisions being made through corrupt practices, parole boards should be accountable only to the correctional services minister. Department officers cannot hold the position of parole board chairman or vice-chairman.
Parole board officials have told Times Select that despite the Jali Commission’s recommendations being written into the Correctional Services Act, department officials ignore this and attempt to unduly influence their decisions on parole.
Board officials believe the conflict has led to contracts not being renewed, and have warned that a lack of parole hearings could spark violence across the country’s prisons.
Maistry said the minister had instructed the national commissioner to provide him with an urgent update on the boards’ status and the challenges they face, and recommended candidates for the establishment of new parole boards.
He said the report would reveal whether parole hearings were taking place and whether any prisoners were being held in custody unlawfully.
“We have not received reports on prisoners being held unlawfully.”
Maistry said that recently 30 board members took the department to court to have them appointed permanently.
“The application was dismissed with costs. Prior to the application the minister engaged the members to resolve the labour dispute.”
Litsoane, whose board holds 150 parole hearings a month for prisoners across southern Gauteng and the northern Free State, said it was not a matter of if, but rather when, riots will break out.
“The situation is a ticking time bomb.”
He said for months the department and the minister knew that civilian board members’ contracts were to expire.
“They have done nothing to avert the crisis. Virtually all parole boards have ground to a halt.”
Litsoane claimed that department officials deliberately ignored the act which protected the boards’ independence.
“Because correctional services officials are unhappy with the decisions we make about who gets parole and who is entitled to a hearing, they have recommended our contracts are not renewed, which has stopped us from functioning.
“Since 1 December dates for parole hearings and hearings have been unable to take place or be set. On November 19 we met the minister in Pretoria over this. We were promised feedback by December 3, but have heard nothing.”
He said some contracts earlier in the year were renewed for a few months on an ad hoc basis, but all renewals stopped on November 30.
“The ministry and department are violating prisoners’ constitutional rights.”
Thulani Ndwandwe, who sits on the Glencore prison parole board in KwaZulu-Natal, said the situation was at crisis level.
“On average we deal with over 100 parole hearings a month. We are meant to conduct hearings for prisoners at Glencore, Dundee, Pomeroy, Greytown, Kranskop, Ladysmith and Bergville prisons, but because our contracts have not been renewed the hearings cannot take place.
“The situation is becoming volatile. Prisoners are rightfully demanding to know why their hearings are not happening. They are being punished for something that is not of their doing.”
Professor Lukas Muntingh, co-founder of the Africa Criminal Justice Reform project at the University of the Western Cape’s Dullah Omar Institute, said if parole boards were not sitting, the department and the ministry could be at risk of legal action for violating the Constitution.
“The implications are that prisoners’ rights are being violated. While a prisoner may not be eligible for parole, they are, under the law, entitled to a parole hearing.”
A Groenpunt prisoner, whose parole application was to have been heard last week, said he was “gatvol”.
“I have served my time [for armed robbery]. I have been here for 12 years. I have done all the offender courses. Now that I have an opportunity to go home, the hearings stop because of paperwork issues.
“If this is not sorted prisoners will riot.”
South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights spokesperson Golden Miles Bhudu said administrative negligence was costing prisoners their freedom.
“The issues of contracts should have been resolved months ago. Given how rigorous the interview process for parole board members are, adverts should have been placed six months ago so new members could be appointed by the time contracts of those currently on the board expired.”
Madipoane Mothapo, who chairs parliament’s portfolio committee on justice and correctional services, expressed concern at the allegations.
“A letter will be written to the minister seeking clarity. The department and minister will be invited to brief the committee on the issues.”