Awaiting trial inmates at the Johannesburg Correctional Centre — commonly known as “Sun City” — who claim to have tested positive for Covid-19, allege that they are grouped together and sleeping on the floor in one overcrowded cell.
Cellphone images sent to the Mail & Guardian by awaiting trial prisoners at the centre show a group of men wearing masks in a cell while sitting on the floor against the wall, with some of them sharing beds. The windows are covered with black plastic bags, allegedly to cover broken glass.
“We sleep four on a bed. I was told last week my temp is high after the test. My stomach was running and I had a cold or flu. But I was taken from my cell, [which] was bad, but was put in worse conditions. We slept the first two nights on the cold floor,” claimed one awaiting trial prisoner. “At first we were 18, but as the test[s] went on, more came. We are now 64 and 26 sleep on the floor next to each other … It’s like a fridge at night.”
Three other awaiting trial inmates, who also claim that they had tested positive for Covid-19, said they were transferred to another cell when they showed flu-like symptoms. “This cell was not in use because there are broken windows, [defective] plumbing and rats. But they opened it now for us,” said one awaiting trial prisoner.
But the department has denied that there are any Covid-19 cases at the centre and said no one is in isolation. “As responded previously, overcrowding remains a challenge within the correctional system. However, we do attend to maintenance issues as capacity is available. The allegations made are in the extreme and false,” said department spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo. “Johannesburg Medium A in Gauteng has a total of 6 609 inmates, whereas its bed capacity is 2 630. Hence, we are now using double-bunk beds in an effort to create additional bed space.”
The claims come just over a week after the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), led by Justice Edwin Cameron and department of correctional services officials led by national commissioner Arthur Fraser, visited the prison after two letters claiming that conditions for awaiting trial prisoners were bad.
The team discovered a number of problems, including one overcrowded cell in the remand centre, with insufficient bed space; a number of inmates sleeping on blankets stacked on the floor; and cold shower water, among other issues.
But Cameron clarified that, although the department was making efforts to deal with the conditions there, it was incapable of dealing with the overcrowding issue. Since then, the department has ordered geysers to sort out the cold-water problem and made some emergency arrangements.
Two weeks ago, the M&G reported on claims that three to four men shared a bed, and some men sleep crammed together on the floor. One of the pictures supplied showed a group of up to seven inmates sleeping on the floor, proving that social distancing was impossible in the overcrowded cells.
As of May 20, the department of correctional services has reported 675 positive Covid-19 cases, with 219 officials and 456 inmates being infected across its correctional centres. There have been 133 recoveries, with four deaths recorded.
To combat an increase in Covid-19 cases, the department said it was focused on prevention, containment/treatment, and disaster recovery. It was using infection-prevention control measures, ensuring that personal protective equipment was made available, and has pushed for sanitisation of reception areas, cells, offices, vehicles and ablution facilities.
In an attempt to control overcrowding at correctional centres, the government announced that as many as 19 000 inmates who were eligible for parole or charged with lower scheduled crimes and remanded without bail would be released.
One official at Sun City prison, who wished to remain anonymous because he is not allowed to talk to the media, warned that although the conditions were not conducive at their facility, there were inmates who were trying to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to be released.
“There are complaints every day about food, water, toilets, especially by those inmates who want to be released by the government. Yes, there are many challenges, especially with overcrowding, but we are sanitising and giving inmates protective equipment,” said the official.