President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Friday that almost 19,000 prisoners nationally will be paroled to counter the spread of the Covid-19 virus, will almost halve the accommodation shortage in the country’s prisons.
But it remains to be seen what effect the early releases will have in curbing the transmission of Covid-19 through the prison system or whether it will spike neighbourhood crime.
Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola said parolees who violated the conditions of parole would be returned to prison.
He also said individual prison parole boards would consider applications by low-risk inmates in phases, with priority given to the most vulnerable, those aged over 60, female offenders with infants, and inmates with underlying health conditions.
DispatchLIVE reported in April that awaiting-trial prisoners at the West Bank prison had embarked on a hunger strike in a bid to force the correctional services department to release them early.
The protest took the form of skipping some meals and refusing to take part in the daily roll call.
Prof Lukas Munting, of the Dullah Omar Institute for Constitutional Law, Governance and Human Rights at the University of the Western Cape, said it was difficult to know what affect the parole programme would have on overcrowding because little statistical information was available on the prison system.
“There is no information in the public domain to answer the questions around who must be released, and how many must you release to make it safe for people to remain behind,” he said.
“We don’t know how many people are normally released in a month, and over what period the 19,000 will be released.
“Will these be releases on top of existing releases or will it include them as well?
“We also don’t know how many people are normally admitted to prison.”
As a result, it was like “managing a disaster in the dark”, Munting said.
Overcrowding has been a perennial problem in the country’s prison system and like most of the government’s failures, has been horribly exposed by the pandemic.
Ramaphosa announced a special remission of sentences in December 2019, effectively releasing 14,647 low-risk inmates to community corrections.
Nowhere has the vulnerability of prisoners been more evident than in the cluster outbreak in the East London prison complex, where 65 inmates and 35 officials have been infected and two deaths have occurred.
Lamola on Friday pegged the number of prisoners in the system at 157,208, with only 118,572 beds available across the country.
Most of the bigger prisons had double the number of inmates for the available accommodation and he said 3,006 new beds would be provided over the next five years through upgrades of existing facilities and new prisons.
He said the government would also consider intervention measures for 5,000 awaiting trial inmates who could not afford to post bail.
In the Eastern Cape, Lamola said, St Albans prison in Port Elizabeth had only 706 beds for 1,683 inmates in the Medium A section.
In his comments, Lamola cited the Constitutional Court’s decision that conditions of imprisonment must be consistent with the right to human dignity.
He said overcrowding in the prison system meant “the glaring impossibility of maintaining physical distancing”.
A factor worsening the spread of the virus was inmates’ compromised immune systems due to chronic conditions.
However, in an application under way in the Port Elizabeth High Court, he has refuted claims by inmates at St Albans prison that his refusal until now to address overcrowding in SA’s prisons amounts to a denial of prisoners’ basic human rights under the constitution.
He said overcrowding was widespread but not universal.
St Albans inmate Thabo Williams, on behalf of a group of inmates, has told the PE court that Lamola has refused to deal with the overcrowding, which affects prisoners’ safety, physical care and human dignity.
In St Albans, he says, prisoners sleep on cement floors or share beds, with up to 100 inmates in a cell sharing two toilets
The president’s decision, based on recommendations of the Correctional Supervision and Parole Board, may now stave off that court process.
While only six prisons have recorded 172 Covid-19 infections among officials and inmates, the East London facility’s 101 cases constitute the biggest group by far, split between 66 inmates and 35 officials.
The other large group of infections is in the Western Cape, with only one recovered infection at Port Elizabeth’s St Albans.