South Africa


Extent of overcrowding at SA prisons revealed

Extent of overcrowding at SA prisons revealed

In a committee meeting on Wednesday 4 September the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) revealed that SA’s correctional facilities have been overcrowded and under-resourced for nearly two decades.

According to statistics from the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), South Africa’s correctional facilities have been overcrowded since 2000. In a presentation to the Committee on Justice and Correctional Services, DCS Chief Deputy Commissioner Joseph Katenga revealed that despite a marginal decrease in the average number of inmates, there had consistently been far fewer beds than inmates over the past 19 years.

In the 2018/19 year there were about 43,000 more inmates than beds available in correctional facilities, but according to Arthur Fraser, national commissioner of correctional services, these inmates have a proper place to sleep.

When we say we have 118,000 beds, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the [43,000] inmates are sleeping on the floor,” Fraser told the committee. “We have made bunk beds and in-between beds, so to speak.”

Although the department has made temporary plans for overcrowded facilities, Katenga revealed that, since 2000, there had only been a 15% increase in the number of formal bed spaces for prisoners.

DCS has no legal powers to refuse detention of inmates on the basis of inadequate bed space and other factors resulting in overcrowding of inmates,” Katenga told the committee.

Representatives from the personal corrections department of the DCS told the committee that of the 243 correctional facilities across South Africa, 157 are technically underpopulated while 77 are more than 150% full.

According to the DCS report for the 2017/18 financial year, correctional facilities were overpopulated by an average of 38% across SA. In the Eastern Cape correctional facilities were, on average, overpopulated by almost 58%.

Overcrowding is one of the department’s biggest problems,” said Katenga. “When facilities are overcrowded, the main priority becomes security. Therefore we can’t do anything else properly.”

Fraser, along with other representatives from DCS and committee members discussed the recent incident at St Albans prison in the Eastern Cape, where an inmate was fatally injured and a correctional officer wounded. On Sunday 1 September an inmate stabbed an officer in the neck, and was killed while attempting to stab other officials, according to News24.

Overcrowding negatively affects prisoners’ mental and physical well-being, particularly when correctional officers have to focus on security to maintain order in densely populated facilities.

Thabo Rapoo, head researcher for the Commission for Gender Equality, told the committee that during the commission’s investigation into women in prisons they had found that some mentally ill inmates were forced to wear straitjackets or kept in solitary confinement.

So-called ‘problematic’ inmates are sometimes kept separate or segregated from the rest of the inmates for long periods of time,” said Rapoo.

Daily Maverick previously reported on the rise in prisoner suicides, which jumped from 52 in 2016/17 to 82 in 2017/18.

Acting chief deputy commissioner of incarcerations and corrections, Maria Mabena, said only 81 full-time psychologists, supported by social workers and doctors, were available to assist correctional facilities.

In its assessment of the health and wellness of women in prison, the Commission for Gender Equality recommended that, “The DCS should develop a new strategy for accommodating inmates with mental health problems that does not involve imprisonment of mental patients in currently overcrowded DCS correctional centres.”

The committee did not have enough time to debate the assessment, and chairperson Gratitude Magwanishe recommended that top DCS officials meet with the Commission for Gender Equality, and present a joint report in three months’ time. DM


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