Overcrowded prisons mean shortage of beds, uniforms for those awaiting trial

Overcrowding at prisons across the country means that those awaiting trial or the finalisation of legal proceedings sometimes end up without a bed, bedding or even a uniform, according to a survey released this week.

Given that correctional centres were generally 150% full, the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) looked at what effect this would have on inmates by asking a percentage of them about their living conditions.

This comes on the back of a 2016 judgment in the Western Cape High Court, which ordered Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town, among others, to ensure its remand facility was not more than 120% full.

"Whereas the judgment was applauded for contributing to the alleviation of overcrowding in Pollsmoor, it has had a ripple effect. Inmates were transferred to other centres, and other inmates from those to yet other centres," said JICS spokesperson Emerantia Cupido.

"Not only did those centres become more overcrowded, but an additional implication was that inmates were further removed from their families; and placed in a sometimes unfamiliar cultural environment."

In March, the JICS posed questions to 1 099 remand or awaiting trial inmates at correctional centres in East London, Potchefstroom, Goodwood, Pietermaritzburg and the Kgosi Mampuru II centre in Pretoria.

The number of inmates who slept on beds varied greatly, with 96% at one centre on beds, while in another, 66% of those surveyed did not have beds.

READ: Prison boss makes appeal to reduce overcrowding in jails

Cupido said no centre had 100% bed capacity.

Most of the inmates across centres did not have bedding available.

"Only in one centre was bedding available to 91% [of] inmates. There are large discrepancies in this area from centre to centre, due to, inter alia, the movement of inmates," said Cupido.

The same could be said for uniforms in the remand sections.

"One prison had 97% available and another only 8%. The supply of uniforms – especially shoes – cannot keep up with the demand."

Between 51% and 98% of inmates at the centres did not have access to warm water.

The JICS had a number of tentative conclusions.

'No single solution'

"It speaks for itself that South African correctional centres are overcrowded because of the country’s high crime rate, resulting from poverty; unemployment; a lack of education; alcohol and drug abuse; immorality; a lack of respect for human dignity; and possibly multiple other factors."

It said overcrowding was at its worst in remand facilities and was complicated by the constant flow of inmates.

Overcrowding also created serious security risks, especially in centres where gangs were active.

It found that a significant number of those awaiting trial were granted bail but never ended up paying it, either because they or their family could not afford it. In other cases, their family seemed to have little sympathy for them.

"An inmate, charged with theft of items of relatively little value, who cannot afford R300 bail, may spend many months behind bars, while waiting to be convicted or acquitted," said Cupido.

The JICS said there was no single solution to overcrowding. For one, the high crime rate had to be addressed on an economic, social and educational level.

Included in its tentative recommendations were looking at proper crime investigation and case management to ensure trials were finalised speedily; re-looking at available resources; and looking at different sentencing options, including correctional supervision.

"All in South Africa, whether imprisoned or not, have basic rights," said Cupido.

"In terms of Section 35 of the Constitution, all accused, detained and arrested persons have the right to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity. This should include exercise and the provision, at state expense, of adequate accommodation, nutrition, reading material and medical treatment etc."

She said the dignity of inmates was inextricably linked to the dignity of all citizens.