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Report shows sorry state of South Africa's prisons

Ilham Rawoot

The correctional services department owes about R1.3-billion in damages to prisoners and former inmates for bodily injury and rape while in prison.

A study has shown that Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, for example, has a 90% risk of transmission of TB. (Sydelle Willow Smith)

A recent report by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (Jics) – the government-appointed oversight body – identified R71-million in wasteful expenditure and R215-million in irregular expenditure. There also appears to be confusion over how many prisons exist in South Africa. According to the department's annual report, there are 243 correctional centres, but according to the report there are 236. The department has not explained the discrepancy.

About 17% of assaults in prison are committed by warders on inmates. The report said: "Inmates were assaulted with batons or shock-shields used in conjunction with water. Some are placed in single cells for days without food or basic amenities and some are transferred subsequently to avoid these cases coming under [the] scrutiny of the SAPS."

From 71 complaints against officials by inmates for assault, only one saw disciplinary action taken against the official. Last year the department owed R1.3-billion in damages to prisoners and former inmates, which included R976-million for "bodily injury/assault" and R4.5-million for rape.

According to Emily Keehn, prisons expert at the Sonke Gender Justice Network, this is worrying becuase there is no policy on the prevention of sexual violence in prisons.

"The department is paying inmates out millions in damages for rape but it is not taking proactive measures to prevent it from occurring," said Keehn.

Unnatural deaths
There were 47 unnatural deaths in prisons last year, which included 12 cases of murder, four of which were as a result of violence by warders on inmates.

For 16 cases, the department was not able to supply the cause of the deaths because it did not have the post-mortem reports.

Suicide is still the primary cause of unnatural deaths in prisons.

"This is interesting when you compare it to the mental illness indicator which says that 98% of inmates who have requested mental health assistance have been treated," said Clare Ballard, legal researcher at the University of the Western Cape Law Clinic.

"If suicide is the major cause of unnatural deaths then you have to question the quality of this treatment," she said.

Lack of personnel
At least 32% of prisons do not have a doctor or nurse on the premises. The department blamed this on a lack of available medical personnel and 17 centres had not received a visit from a doctor in the last three months.

The report also revealed that 804 prisoners had died "natural deaths". Included in this figure are 110 inmates who died from tuberculosis (TB), 74 from HIV/Aids and 76 from pneumonia. Many prisoners will have contracted these diseases in prison.

A study by TB expert Professor Robin Wood shows that there is a 90% risk of transmission of TB at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. And prisoners suffering from multiple and extreme drug resistant TB are only segregated to prevent transmission in 40% of prisons.

Furthermore, with a high instance of sexual violence, 19% of prisons do not make condoms available to inmates.

Massive problem of remand detainees
The report also exhibits the massive problem of remand detainees, who make up 30% of the population. Thirty-three percent of these unsentenced inmates had been held for six months or more. Many of these will be exonerated – after a lengthy stay in prison.

The Jics report said while it was difficult to determine the extent to which the police made wrongful arrests, it was estimated that "in excess of 18 000 people per month were unnecessarily arrested by the police and consequently ended up in prison awaiting trial".

The department refused to answer specific questions surrounding the report.

Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele, in a statement, said: "The department is currently implementing a turnaround strategy and plan to ensure improved financial management with respect to the identified weaknesses."

Ilham Rawoot is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa. You can follow Ilham on Twitter.

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