/ 7 May 2020

Covid-19 is a grave threat in prisons

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Close proximity: Prisoners sleep crammed together in some cells at the Johannesburg Correctional Centre

Overcrowding, cold showers and insufficient bed-space during the coronavirus pandemic haunt correctional services officials at Johannesburg Correctional Centre — often referred to as Sun City.

There are claims that three to four men share a bed, and that some men sleep crammed together on the floor. One of the pictures supplied to the Mail & Guardian shows a group of up to seven inmates sleeping on the floor.

Despite only six of South Africa’s 243 correctional facility centres having reported positive cases of
Covid-19 — and two deaths in an East London prison — the department of correctional services (DCS) is racing against time to contain a possible spread of the virus.

Earlier this week the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), led by its inspecting judge, Justice Edwin Cameron, conducted an inspection, together with Correctional Services officials led by commissioner Arthur Fraser.

This was after two separate letters and photographs of the prison, raising concerns about the conditions there, were sent to the inspectorate by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies on behalf of Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network, as well as one other letter from a co-accused in a R1-billion fraud and corruption case. 

“The contents of the letters were not identical but overlapped … The DCS officials conceded that significant problems existed in the remand centre (Medium A), in particular pronounced overcrowding. It was conceded that physical distancing is, in those circumstances, not feasible,” Cameron told the M&G.

He said there was, however, an evident concerted effort by department officials to intervene, with screening of all people at the entrance of the centre, repeated sanitising throughout every section and unit, and the wearing of face masks by people moving within the facility.

“We inspected two of the cells in the remand centre. One was not overcrowded, but the other we found seriously overcrowded, with insufficient bed-space. A number of the inmates had to sleep on blankets stacked on the floor. Each cell has only one toilet and one shower. In both cells, these were working. There was only cold water. The department has ordered a sufficient number of calorifiers to remedy the hot-water problem. These have been delivered, and emergency arrangements have been or are being made to have them installed forthwith, during the lockdown,” said Cameron.

Rubbish litters blankets when they are not being used by inmates

Department spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said that the approach in all the prisons is now focused on prevention, containment and treatment, and disaster recovery. “The department activated infection-prevention control measures at all management areas, with specific directives to ensure that personal protective equipment is availed, and has pushed for the sanitisation of reception areas, cells, offices, vehicles and ablution facilities …

“Therefore, reports purporting that inmates and officials are not protected against the virus cannot be sustained. We are not aware of any pending strike or a letter from inmates … Valuable lessons have been learned at East London and this has assisted us,” said Nxumalo.

He said that as the number of infected people increased in prisons, the department activated its containment and treatment pillar of the disaster-management response strategy.

According to one of the letters sent to the JICS and the department by Sue Bennett — a co-accused of Gary Porritt, who is awaiting trial in Sun City — there has been no hot water at Sun City and those awaiting trial are crammed together and forced to share sleeping space.

“The men heat their water using unsafe, Heath Robinson ‘bombs’ dangled into plastic buckets. The beds are made of 70cm bunks tied together with bread packets to give a 140cm space, which is occupied by three to four men. The men who do not have a bed have to sleep bunched together on the floor. No bedding is provided by the DCS. Counting is done at least twice a day, during which process the men are required to sit next to each other on the beds. There is endemic TB [tuberculosis] and other diseases, rendering numbers of the detainees vulnerable to dying from the virus. The detainees, unlike convicted prisoners, are not allowed outside to exercise. They have to stay in their cells all day except for mealtimes,” said Bennett in her complaint.

Nxumalo said: “Two units, namely A-single and A2-unit receive hot water supply only in the morning. [The] other nine units do not receive hot-water supply but maintenance section, in conjunction with public works, are currently busy with the replacement of old, faulty and small calorifiers … All cells have double-bunk beds, which are not mounted, and inmates are placing beds together to create more sleeping space due to overcrowding …

“There is no endemic TB. All inmates admitted in the centre are screened for TB and those in the units are screened biannually. All suspects are immediately isolated, tests are conducted. Those who are TB positive are initiated on treatment,” Nxumalo added.

The independent watchdog leader, Cameron, once more raised an issue with South Africa’s “faulty criminal justice system”.

“The one problem that the department is incapable of remedying is overcrowding. That is not the fault of correctional officials, nor within their power to remedy. It is the fault of our criminal justice and specifically our carceral system, which suffers from what is, in my view, serious over-incarceration of remand and sentenced inmates,” said Cameron.

The M&G understands that Justice Minister Ronald Lamola is expected to announce this week that his department had approached Cabinet with plans to release as many as 19000 inmates who are either eligible for parole or charged with lower scheduled crimes and remanded without bail, in an effort to ease congestion in correctional facilities.

Bennett and Porritt were arrested in 2002 and 2003, respectively, on charges of fraud, corruption and infringements of the Income Tax Act and the Companies Act, but
their trial began only in September 2016. 

Their company, Tigon, was one of the top companies listed on the JSE when more than R115-million belonging to investors was lost. According to the South African Revenue Services, the state may have lost more than R1-billion in taxes.

Bennett, who is out on bail, said that her co-accused has a history of respiratory complaints and suffers from a quivering or irregular heart beat. “During this past week I have received numerous photographs taken by co-detainees of Mr Porritt who would never normally take the risk of sending these out for fear of swift and painful repercussions, but they have now decided that their lives are in such danger that they have nothing to lose. Their very real fears are clearly justified,” said Bennett in her complaint.

The department has recorded 169 Covid-19 positive cases, with 60 recoveries in their facilities.