/ 18 October 2006

Unpacking the Jali Commission report

In 2001, the Jali Commission started its inquiry into alleged incidents of corruption, maladministration, violence and intimidation in the Department of Correctional Services.

It is now 2006 and the report of commission, named after Thabane Jali, the chairperson of the commission, has been publicised.

Ngconde Balfour, Minister of Correctional Services, said on Monday that 60% of its recommendations are being implemented.

Briefing the media at Parliament, Balfour said he welcomed the commission’s findings and recommendations, as they affirmed the department was on the right track in building an ethical and secure system, leaving no space for fraud and corruption.

Balfour also said on Tuesday that the department sought to build an ”ethical and secure correctional system, whose culture repels fraud and corruption, as they threaten lives of people inside and outside of our facilities”.

He further added that ”considering the legacy of our secretive prison system, there is still a long way to go”.

But, what details are to be found in the commission’s report? And how, exactly, is the department implementing the recommendations made in the commission to safeguard both the South African public as well as the 160 213 prisoners in South African jails?

The Mail & Guardian Online dissected the Jali report, which discovered what was really going on in the Department of Correctional Services and in South African prisons, as well as unpacked what strategies are being implemented to combat the disturbing findings.

The findings, as well as evidence and recommendations, were organised thematically, some of the prominent matters being: gangs, super-max prisons, prison security, treatment of prisoners, sexual violence in prisons, overcrowding, sexual harassment and the abuse of power.


Gangs are a very powerful force in prisons and play a significant role in corruption and violence. They are an ongoing threat to the functioning of prisons, according to the commission.

It was even suggested that gangs are, in fact, running some prisons.

Being in a gang ”makes inmates into men rather than boys” and divides inmates into men and women. Gangs alleviate some of the pains of imprisonment such as idleness, boredom, institutionalisation, powerlessness and even sexual frustration.

In the Western Cape, gang activity is rife on the streets and in prisons and there is a relationship between the street gangs and prison gangs that reinforces drug smuggling in prisons.

The commission found that department members often took bribes to turn a blind eye to sexual abuse, gang violence and thefts and were sometimes complicit in illegal activities. Evidence showed that some members of the department even belonged to prison gangs.

The department is developing an anti-gang and anti-rape strategy, while a new-offender disciplinary code and procedure was adopted in 2003 and is being rolled out.

According to the department, the total number of incidents of offender-on-offender violence (which includes gang-related violence) reduced from 4 492 in 1995 to 1 531 in 2005.

Super-max prisons

The commission found that super maximum prisons such as C-Max are institutions of solitary confinement and torture and cannot assist in the efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and correct their behaviour.

But Balfour rejected this recommendation, saying there is no way the high-tech, secure facilities would be disbanded.

”C-Max prisons still need to be there. There are those who are a danger to society and need to be kept very secure,” he was reported as saying in the Star on Tuesday.

The imprisonment policy in its current form is unlikely to survive constitutional scrutiny for much longer under the Constitution, which seeks to protect basic human rights, the report said.

Sexual violence

Department members either ignore or possess ”a shocking lack of empathy and sensitivity” to ”the horrific scourge of sexual violence that plagues prisons”, according to the report.

It was found that when a young prisoner at the Medium A Prison Grootvlei in Pietermaritzburg reported that two prisoners had sodomised him, instead of receiving support, he was then sodomised by the warder in the first of many such assaults.

”If the department keeps ignoring the fact that sexual abuse is rife in our prisons and that there is an extreme likelihood that prisoners who are exposed to violent, unprotected sex will in all likelihood contract Aids, then it is effectively, by omission, imposing a death sentence on vulnerable prisoners.”

According to the department, all newly appointed officials are sensitised during the basic training at the colleges about the types of offenders they will be working with, and human rights training forms part of the orientation and training of officials.


Overcrowding is a major challenge for the department because it exacerbates the problem of corruption and maladministration, affects the rehabilitation of the prisoners and encourages sexual abuse of inmates, the report states.

The commission found that, sometimes, 60 prisoners had to share one toilet and sleep two in a bed whilst others sleep on concrete floor, occasionally with only one blanket to share. In some prisons, like Bizana (in the Eastern Cape), prisoners were sleeping in shifts.

But while the prison in Bizana was found to be 400% full, there was a prison 80km away that was only 7% full. This is a product of mismanagement said the commission.

Overcrowding is a result of the manner in which parole is dealt with by officials (which has not been producing the desired results), an increase in the number of sentenced prisoners and a high number of awaiting-trial detainees, the report said

The department said that the number of awaiting detainees had declined by 13% from 55 000 in 2003 to 47 000 in 2006, while the number of sentenced prisoners number declined from 131 715 to 112 878 within the same period.

Sexual harassment and the abuse of power

The commission found that three female employees of the department were sexually harassed by a senior official. He made suggestive comments and sexual advances, touched them inappropriately and kissed one of them.

However, he was never disciplined, but ”promoted” to the provincial commissioner’s office shortly after the complainants had laid their charges, a clear message to these women that they would not believed. The women were also subjected to a torrid time, both in the investigation of their complaints and to victimisation in their working environment.

The complainants alleged that instead of being assisted by the department, they were victimised to the extent that one of them decided to resign, another had to be medically boarded and the third, who decided to remain in the service, was subjected to disciplinary proceedings and ultimately dismissed by the department.

The department says it has professionals such as social workers and psychologists, who deliver services around the prevention of, response to and support of rape and sexual harassment.

Lax security in prisons

The commission was disturbed to hear evidence of prisoners who for a fee, could ”disappear” from prison and/or escape.

It also found that the department does not do enough to ensure that staff who aid in these escapes are severely punished.

One such warden charged prisoners who were incarcerated for armed robbery (because they usually have the money to pay) between R10 000 and R200 000 to arrange an escape at Johannesburg Prison.

At its Port Elizabeth hearings, the commission heard of a prisoner who had escaped from prisons in the Eastern Cape on at least six occasions, assisted by members of the correctional services.

It was no surprise that this inmate had required the name ”MacGyver” because it soon became clear that, very much like the television character of a TV series in the 80s, he most certainly, by escaping from some of these places, committed things that are humanly impossible.

To counter lax security at prisons, biometric access control (a person registers with the system when one or more of his physical and behavioural characteristics are obtained) with walkthrough metal detectors, scanners and CCTVs have been introduced in 66 prisons and the system is to be rolled out to all other prisons over the next three to four years.

The commission also recommended a prison ombudsman to prevent corruption within the department. It said the department has always had an anti-corruption unit, yet this has not been effective in dealing with the problems. The opinion of the commission was that there should be an outside agency (prison ombudsman) to look into the issue of corruption.

But the department will not be implementing this recommendation, arguing on Tuesday that the ombudsman would be unnecessary given that the department complies well with a Cabinet directive on fighting fraud and corruption.