Remission of prison sentences a 'red herring'
A prison expert has warned that linking the remission of sentences—granted by President Jacob Zuma on Freedom Day—to overcrowding in prisons is a red herring that detracts from the real problems in South Africa’s prisons.
Clare Ballard, a legal researcher for the Community Law Centre’s Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, said while the release of over 14 000 prisoners would reduce the overall rate of occupancy in the country’s prisons, it wouldn’t make a difference where one was really needed. This was because the bulk of overcrowding in South Africa’s prisons was found in facilities for awaiting trial prisoners, while facilities for sentenced inmates usually operated at or below capacity.
“Our very high awaiting trial population means there’s a huge bottleneck and the criminal justice system is broken. That’s where the problem is. If the president wanted to focus our attention on something it should be that,” said Ballard.
She also said that linking the remission to controversial and politically-linked prisoners like Jackie Selebi and Schabir Shaik was “alarmist”.
“Picking up on political names is missing the issue,” said Ballard, who added a similar misdirection occurred when the medical parole provisions of the Correctional Services Act were amended.
Done all over the world
This was framed as having implications for Selebi who, she said, had not even been put on trial when the legislation was initiated.
She said that in principle, there was nothing wrong with granting remission of sentences and that it was done all over the world.
The department confirmed that both Selebi and Shaik would benefit from the special remission but maintained this was not because there was anything special about the pair—rather it was because they were being treated equally to other offenders.
“Mr Schabir Shaik, as a parolee, and Mr Jackie Selebi, as an offender serving a sentence, will both benefit from this process simply because they don’t fall into the categories of offenders who will be excluded,” said Sonwabo Mbananga, spokesperson for Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
All inmates, probationers and parolees have been granted a six-month remission of sentence, regardless of the crimes they have committed. An additional 12 months has been granted to those serving time for non-aggressive crimes which excludes sexual, firearm or drug-related offences.
Mbananga said it was unfair to characterise the remission as being designed to benefit Selebi and Shaik alone.
“We’re talking about 14 651 prisoners who will be released as a result of the remission. The debate can’t be centred around two individuals. Why should we exclude them if they don’t fall within the categories of people who are excluded,” he said.
Mbananga pointed out that because Selebi had only served the first few months of his 15-year jail sentence, an 18-month remission would do little to change his circumstances.
“He’s still left with [over] 13 years of an entire sentence to be served. His eligibility to be considered for parole will move closer but it doesn’t mean he’s likely to be released,” he said.
He added that being eligible for consideration for parole did not automatically mean one would be placed on parole, only that one had met the requirements for appearing before the parole board.
Similarly, he said, Shaik remained a parolee who had to adhere to his parole conditions, except that his sentence, which would have expired in 2021, would now expire in 2019.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has criticised the remissions, saying that it “diminishes the deterrent effect of the sentences” and undermines judicial independence.
The ‘spirit’ of Freedom Day
DA spokesperson James Self called for alternative methods to alleviate overcrowding in prisons, including community-based sentences.
But Mbananga said while one of the benefits was reducing overcrowding in the country’s prisons from 34% to 20%, this was not the primary reason for implementing it. Rather, the remission had been granted “in the spirit of Freedom Day”.
He also pointed out that the department was looking at alternatives to incarceration, particularly for low-risk and non-violent offenders, in an attempt to reduce overcrowding. In February the department launched an electronic tagging pilot project for low risk offenders. There are 106 offenders in the programme—11 of them in Gauteng.
Special remissions of sentence have been granted in the past, most notably in 1994 at the inauguration of former president Nelson Mandela, in 1995 at the first anniversary of South Africa’s democracy and in 1998 on Mandela’s 80th birthday.
The department has outlined a 10-week programme to stagger the release of prisoners. Pre-release assessments and related administrative tasks begin on Monday.
The first actual releases will take place on May 14.