/ 17 July 2008

R1,5bn to keep suspects behind bars

South Africa is spending R1,5billion a year to keep more than 50 000 awaiting-trial detainees behind bars. So said Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour in response to a parliamentary question about the country’s overcrowded prisons.

Independent Democrats MP Sakkie Jenner had asked how many prisons are overfull and what it costs to keep people who have not yet been convicted locked up.

According to Balfour, 73% of the country’s 237 prisons are overcrowded. The Mthatha medium prison, which holds 3,7 times as many prisoners as it was designed for, tops the list. This Eastern Cape prison has 580 beds but contains 2 131 prisoners, of whom 1 229 are awaiting trial.

South Africa’s 237 prisons provide for the accommodation of 114 559 prisoners. However, 165 987 prisoners were in custody on January 31 — 51 428 too many. This amounts to a national average overcrowding level of 45%.

Pritima Osman of the judicial inspectorate of prisons (JIP) told the Mail & Guardian that one reason for the overcrowding was that ”incarceration was happening too easily and there are more awaiting-trial prisoners in custody than outside”.

In response to Janner’s question, Balfour revealed that on March 31 there were 52 662 awaiting-trial detainees in correctional facilities across the country. It costs the state R168,68 a day to keep each one imprisoned and awaiting-trial detainees are kept in prison for 170 days on average.

Osman said the situation is made worse by police who arrest people to ”fill quotas” and by failures to investigate prisoners’ cases completely. Most such cases are eventually thrown out.

”During our inspections at the beginning of the year it was clear that the awaiting-trial figure pushes up the numbers in prison,” said Osman. ”Police cells cannot handle the numbers of people awaiting trial and the minimum sentences have also been pushed up, which leads to the overcrowding in prisons.

”Not one of these problems alone stands out and adds to the overcrowded prisons. The problems are all interconnected and complex and they need to be solved in a multi-departmental and sectoral manner.”

The JIP’s latest annual report says overcrowding is not evenly spread across provinces or prisons.

Across the country the JIP found that 63 prisons were not full and eight of these not even half-full. At the other end of the scale, 17 prisons were housing more than twice as many prisoners as they should. Between these extremes, 90 prisons were holding between 100% and 150% of their intended number of prisoners, and 67 were occupied at levels between 150% and 200%.

Lukas Muntingh, project coordinator for the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, told the M&G there has been a big increase in the number of prisoners awaiting trial.

”The number of awaiting-trial prisoners has increased significantly in the past 18 months. This is after there was a decline prior to that from about 60 000 to 40 000.”

He attributed the initial drop to the role of the JIP, among others.

”The monitoring, though, seems to have stopped, and I’m not saying it’s only because of the inspectorate. Everyone must play a role.”

He said recent statistics show almost half of awaiting-trial prisoners have their cases either withdrawn or struck off the court roll. This means there were no solid cases against them and their arrests were unnecessary, he said.

”The National Prosecuting Authority and the courts need to come to a decision quicker. Half of those in custody have been there for three months or longer.”

Muntingh said overcrowding is not only the fault of the department of correctional services but also that of the department of justice and the South African Police Service.

”The police arrest people for no good reason. For example, in Cape Town they arrest people for municipal by-law offences like being drunk in public or urinating in public.

”Many of these people are poor and homeless. They are taken to prison where it costs [the state] R150 a day to keep them and they can’t pay the unaffordable bail.”

Muntingh echoes Osman’s call for cooperation between departments to address the problem.

”History shows that awaiting-trial prisoners need to be monitored to address the backlog. It is based on all levels of cooperation.”