How South African prisons are managing Covid-19

The pandemic has amplified the problem of overcrowding in prisons and while the number of infections are said to be on the decline, inmates continue to fear for their lives.

Overcrowding and allegations about the disregard of prisoners’ human rights are not unique to South African prisons. According to the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, there are 243 correctional centres in the country with a bed capacity of 118 572. Currently, they house about 138 070 inmates, resulting in an overcrowding rate of 14.12%. 

By the end of August, 4 104 officials and 2 309 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, with 103 deaths – 60 officials and 43 inmates – recorded.

Early in May, President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the release on parole of certain categories of low-risk inmates to curb the rapid spread of Covid-19 in correctional facilities. Although the department initiated the implementation of this special parole dispensation, some inmates, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say the process has been slow. 

Inmates serving both short and lengthy sentences say basic regulations to combat the spread of the coronavirus are being flouted, putting their lives at risk. They further claim that they are being subjected to unhygienic environments. They allege that they receive poor-quality masks and sometimes none at all, and that overcrowding makes physical distancing difficult, if not impossible. Some have been traumatised by the death of fellow inmates.

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At Qalakabusha Correctional Centre in Empangeni in northern KwaZulu-Natal, an inmate serving a 25-year sentence for murder says he was moved from another prison during level five of the lockdown even though he had requested a transfer. “I liked the prison facility where I was previously housed because I did not have to share a cell with other inmates. And even though I slept on the floor, it was better because I had my own toilet.”

He says his chances of getting the virus are much higher at Qalakabusha because he is sharing a cell with three other inmates. “The problem here is that we are sharing with awaiting-trial inmates, and that places our lives at risk because they go out and get exposed to other people in society.” 

The father of three alleges that three inmates died in the prison in August. “The one inmate complained of having sore bones and he was rushed to the prison hospital, and when he arrived he was told to immediately quarantine because he tested positive for Covid-19. He died the next morning, and the problem is that there were about 50 of us in that section and we were exposed to that inmate.” 

8 May 2020: Low-risk inmates at the Goodwood Correctional Centre in Cape Town were among those who became eligible for special parole in an effort to relieve overcrowding during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Nardus Engelbrecht)

Questioning the release of prisoners

The issue of overcrowding is one that concerns experts such as Safura Abdool Karim, a senior researcher and public health lawyer at the University of Witwatersrand. Karim says the parole provisions introduced a few months ago would have facilitated the release of about 19 000 inmates, representing at most 10% of the prison population.

But, she says, “there has been a lack of transparency around how many and where these prisoners have been released. My particular view is that there is a real need to facilitate the release and improve the conditions of remand prisoners, i.e. people awaiting trial. Most trials and criminal proceedings were suspended with the lockdown, meaning that many individuals are in a kind of legal limbo, with charges pending against them but no movement toward finalisation of their cases.”

She adds: “Remand prisoners represent a significant proportion of the prison population and are kept in poorer conditions that sentenced prisoners.”  

In addition, Karim says, reducing overcrowding is only one way to curb the spread of Covid-19. “Now that action has been taken to reduce the prison population, there is a need for the government to improve the conditions – specifically sanitation and access to clean water – in prisons. Without this, there will be little possibility of preventing the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.”

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In June, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola told a virtual sitting of the National Council of Provinces that the department had started releasing selected low-risk offenders from 20 May. On 17 July, he said “just below 7 000” of the 19 000 targeted inmates had been released on parole.

Qualifying inmates in the United States have also been released to serve the remainder of their prison sentences at home. In April, US attorney general William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to start the process of reducing the number of inmates in prison facilities. 

According to The Print news website, thousands of prisoners in countries around the world have been released as an emergency response to the pandemic. “More than 61 000 prisoners in India have been released, including nearly 3 600 in the national capital territory of Delhi, according to one estimate. In Iran, of the tens of thousands of prisoners released temporarily in March as an emergency measure, many received full pardons. And a report published last week suggested that nearly 130 000 prisoners had been released in European countries.”

Chronic shortages

In the New Prison Correctional Services Centre in Pietermaritzburg, one inmate fears that the department has run out of funds to provide basic essentials such as food, not to mention hygiene products to protect them from getting infected. “Recently we have been short of food and sometimes it does not come at all,” says the 42-year-old serving time for a house robbery committed in 2016.

On 4 September, the inmates were allegedly told that scheduled family visits that were expected to start the following day had been cancelled. They were further told there was a shortage of bread and meat and that the quality of new bathing soap was being investigated.

“Prisoners have lost hope here and they are now just isolating themselves. They have refused to even wear masks, they don’t even social distance anymore. They don’t care at all about what happens to them, because they have lost hope because they have not been cared for.” 

At the same facility, inmates previously told New Frame that two elderly inmates had died in their sleep, a claim the department denied at the time. “I think the government is lying when they tell the nation that the numbers are declining. I think they did this [further relax the lockdown regulations] so that people can go back to work so that the government can continue to make money.” 

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At the Ncome Prison in Vryheid, where most of the inmates are chronically ill, a prisoner says more could be done to protect their lives during the pandemic. “We are scared because the minister did announce that chronically ill prisoners qualified to get parole, but this has not happened. Three weeks ago, two inmates died in the medium B section because they had the flu and they did not come back.”

The man, originally from Hammarsdale, claims that about 20 prisoners share one cell. “There is no social distancing, there are no sanitisers and it’s one mask per prisoner. What scares me the most is that even the head of the prison died of corona. And that makes me think, if people who can protect themselves are dying then what is going to happen to us?”

The 40-year-old man says he does not believe Ramaphosa when he says the pandemic is under control. “Instead of people getting better, people are dying. We are really confused. I think they put the economy first and the lives of citizens second.” 

Far away from loved ones

An inmate at the Groenpunt Maximum Correctional Facility in Vereeniging says he has not seen his family in two years because he is jailed far away from home. “Because of Covid-19, we have not been allowed visits. I have been asking for a transfer so that we can be closer to our families and they are not allowing it.” 

Luckily, there have been no deaths at the facility, says the 42-year-old. “Most of the inmates get ill, but most of the deaths have been among the warders and other officials. They try to check our temperatures, but other than that the only problem is that we are far away from our families,” says the Durban-born man. 

The inmates at Groenpunt claim that they are not receiving masks and try to make their own instead. “They used to give us disposable surgical masks, which we used to use for three to four days before throwing them away, but they do not give those out anymore. But the biggest problem is the overcrowding and the fact that of the 70 people that are supposed to have been released, only 50 have been released [among] more than 2 000 inmates.” 

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On 13 August, The Star newspaper reported that negligence had resulted in 118 new Covid-19 cases in one day and five deaths in less than a week at Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre in Pretoria. It quoted a prisoner as saying, “Prison wardens don’t want to work in this section because they are afraid, and we don’t blame them. The emergency support team tried to take some inmates late (Wednesday) and beat up some offenders with batons because they didn’t want to leave the cells.” 

Prince Nare, co-director of the South African branch of Just Detention International, an organisation that seeks to end sexual abuse in detention, says South Africa’s prison conditions have always been dangerous for many inmates – and the pandemic is making it worse. 

“This is firstly with direct risk of the virus, but also through the knock-on effects of lockdown, where visits, programmes and oversight processes have been suspended or dramatically limited. These limitations make prisoners all the more vulnerable to abuses.”

1 December 2015: At many prisons across South Africa, including the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre, inmates have complained of overcrowding and a lack of masks and sanitisers. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Sowetan/ Thulani Mbele)

Prisoners have rights, too

While the public may not sympathise with inmates and could care less about their fears of dying from Covid-19, Nare says inmates, too, have rights that must be respected. “Visceral reactions from people in the face of prevalent violent crime are understandable, especially because in many cases victims are left with little support and inadequate acknowledgment and redress for the harm done. 

“With that said, these reactions do not take away from the fact that human rights are inherent to all of us, even people who have perpetrated severe wrongs. Incarcerated persons, due to the nature of incarceration, have a limitation on their right to freedom of movement and association,” says Nare.

“But other rights, including the right to life, the right to be free from all forms of violence, the right to access to healthcare, including reproductive health etcetera, remain inalienable. Inmates have a right to be kept in safe custody and in conditions that are consistent with human dignity. Upholding the rights of the most vulnerable – including the most unpopular – is where the true test of our commitment to human rights lies. In addition, neglect and brutalisation of prisoners only ripples through communities in the form of further violence and trauma when people are released. Maltreatment of prisoners in no way prevents further crime, but instead fuels it.” 

Painting a different picture

Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Logan Maistry warns that there have been a few inmates who have “unfortunately resorted to exaggerating Covid-19 cases in correctional centres in an effort to instigate inmates”. This is also true of some organisations that claim to represent inmates. But, says Maistry, the majority of inmates have ignored this agenda as they are familiar with the preventative measures in all centres, which have resulted in there being only 235 active inmate cases across the country. 

“A picture is being painted of a chaotic correctional centre environment, with hopes that the public will be mobilised and push for mass releases. It must be emphasised that such will never happen. We live in a democratic state where the rule of law is supreme. Only those who qualify will be considered for parole placement. [The department] is taking measures to address such.”

He says the department has full confidence in its preventative and treatment measures, and remains committed to protecting officials and inmates.

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With regard to the release of low-risk inmates on special parole, Maistry says that by 18 August, 9 955 qualifying offenders had been released under correctional supervision to continue serving their sentences in what he calls the “community corrections system”. Many, he adds, were over the age of 60 and sick, which heightened their risk of contracting Covid-19.

“From the projected qualifying inmates, 84.17% have been considered for parole placement, 52% have been released on parole and 32% have been given further profiles. Since the special parole dispensation does not remit sentences, these offenders were placed out subject to placement conditions which must be complied with until they serve their sentences in full.”

He says inmates’ grievances are not falling on deaf ears, as they may believe, and they are being dealt with in line with relevant prescripts. “Heads of correctional centres attend to all complaints and requests of offenders, which are registered accordingly by offenders through the complaints and requests register. Should [these officials] be unable to handle a complaint or request immediately due to its nature, the inmate is informed accordingly.”

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