/ 5 September 2006

Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital

A narrow security gate and a sign proclaiming rules for visitors are the only indication that the steel gate is the entrance to Valkenberg Hospital’s infamous ward 20. While hospital staff and provincial government officials are at pains to point out that it is a hospital, it resembles a prison, with its bleak buildings, visitor body searches, the sounds of clanging steel gates and burly security guards. Staff are also quick to point out that the stark rooms accommodating some of South Africa’s most violent criminals — mostly murderers and rapists — are a huge improvement on the previously overcrowded and filthy wards.

The Western Cape health department has spent money on painting the buildings, improving security to protect staff, revamping the bathrooms and installing heating systems. This is all an interim measure as a new ”forensic village” will be built nearby in the next few years. Ward 20 holds 50 patients, of whom 35 are state patients. The remaining 15 are on trial and have been referred by the courts for observation.

”They [the state patients] are kept here because they are not the nicest people you would want to meet,” says Valkenberg psychiatrist Dr Larissa Panieri-Peter.

Because of the small number of beds (determined by the number of available staff), prisoners referred by the courts for observation often have to wait up to 12 months. There are 100 people on the waiting list. The new hospital, which will be completed by 2010, will have 60 observation beds for referred patients, of which about 30% will be assessed as not able to face the justice system.

Panieri-Peter conceded that the bleak conditions are far from ideal, but they are considerably better than before the renovations took place. And staff shortages are a constant problem, with two professional nurses, three assistant nurses and one staff nurse a shift to care for 50 patients.