South Africa

CORRECTIONAL SERVICES

As prison overcrowding rate intensifies, Popcru threatens Pollsmoor strike

As prison overcrowding rate intensifies, Popcru threatens Pollsmoor strike
Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) members picket outside Pollsmoor Department of Correctional Services on 11 October 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The national overcrowding rate in South African prisons is now 31.65%, versus the 2020/2021 rate of 23%. And there are about 18,000 prisoners serving life sentences, as opposed to just 400 in 1995.

Startling figures on prison overcrowding were given by retired Judge Edwin Cameron, inspecting judge at the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (Jics) on Thursday, just two days after the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) threatened a strike at Pollsmoor Prison because of poor working conditions.

With the national prison overcrowding rate now at 31.65% vs the 2020/2021 rate of 23%, Popcru’s Western Cape secretary, Pat Raolane, described prison facilities as a “hotel” where inmates are the guests and Department of Correctional Services (DCS) officials the waiters.

He said this shortly after members of Popcru picketed outside Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison on Tuesday, 11 October. 

More than 100 DCS officials picketed outside the prison, which is in Tokai, for over two hours. Some of the key points in their memorandum of demand are stabbing incidents allegedly perpetrated by inmates on DCS officials and that the infrastructure at correctional facilities is dilapidated and can no longer handle the overcrowding.

“Popcru cannot give a definite figure on the amount of stabbings. Some are random and not even reported. Some of the attacks relate to members of certain gangs, some are ordained and [the prisoner] must stab a DCS official for them to be graded or promoted.

“Inmates sit in prison as if they are in a hotel. Our members are treated like waiters. Unfortunately, they [inmates] are there to be rehabilitated. Constant stabbings of members are at crisis level due to understaffing,” he said.

The DCS has been given 14 days to reply, and failure to respond could result in a strike at Pollsmoor which could leave prisoners unsupervised for the duration of the intended industrial action.

The issues raised by Popcru were reiterated during the presentation of the Department of Justice and Correctional Services’ Annual Report 2021-2022 before the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services on Thursday. 

The report indicated:

  • Overcrowded facilities create difficult and widespread challenges for housing inmates and providing a safe environment;
  • The inmate population increased by 2,275 from 140,948 to 143,223  between the 2020/21 and 2021/2022 financial years, constituting an overall increase of 1.59%;
  • During the same period, bed spaces were lost due to the partial or full closure of correctional facilities at Umzinto, Ekusen, Waterval Medium B and Parys. Corrective action tackling overcrowding reduction strategy entails focusing on creating additional bed spaces; and
  • In 1995, a total of 400 people were serving life sentences — now there are approximately 18,000.

Judge Cameron said: “Our prison numbers are going up again. We, as a country, have the dubious honour of being the country in Africa with the highest number of incarcerated people and the 12th-highest in the world.

“There are problems at Pollsmoor right now because they are complaining about degraded infrastructure and the danger out there for them.”  

Jics spokesperson Emmarentia Cupido said they had often expressed grave concern about the plight of inmates in sometimes desperately overcrowded and poorly maintained and ventilated conditions.


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“As at 31 March 2022, 238 DCS [facilities] were operating. Too many of these are old and in dire need of repair — the problem is caused not by DCS or its personnel, but by the lack of sufficient responsiveness and efficiency on the part of Public Works.

“Jics’ 172 inspections during 2021/2022 confirmed these worrying conditions. Of these inspections, 16 (9%) correctional services were formally rated unsatisfactory, 139 (81%) were rated satisfactory and 17 (10%) were rated good,” Cupido said.

Overcrowding, she said, was a long-standing core concern for Jics, which together with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services, would hold a practical workshop to rethink effective responses to violent crime.

“Overcrowding certainly enables violence in correctional centres and makes attacks, both on inmates and officers, more difficult to curb. Our centres were never built to house so many,” Cupido said.

Professor Lukas Muntingh, co-founder and project coordinator of Africa Criminal Justice Reform, said of  Popcru’s demands that “in all fairness … allegations are made, but where is the proof?”

The issue of infrastructure was a nationwide problem, which Popcru needed to take up with the Department of Public Works.

“From research and from elsewhere in the world. if complaints are not handled properly the chances of violence increase. So if there is a stabbing one must properly investigate and analyse then why did this happen,” Muntingh said. 

The intended strike by Popcru members had ramifications for the trade union, Muntingh said.

“Leaving Pollsmoor unattended would place the trade union in a very precarious position because if something then goes wrong inside prison and prisoners are harmed or suffer any injuries, then there would be a case made out that the union would be responsible because they embarked on the industrial action.

“If it is an unprotected strike action, the unions place themselves at risk,” he said. DM

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  • allan j whitehead says:

    Judge Cameron setting out yet another damning report, so lets have a legotla about this and a follow up conference at the St George for 5 days as well as tea and biscuits every day at 3.00pm as well, for discussion on implementing no policies that were brought forward..

    Yes, then there is the gem of this regime, the department of public works, this department has never really worked at all since I can remember, the late 70’s, I think.
    This incompetent department eats it’s own budget on remuneration for staff and then the big nail in the prison system was BOSASA’s Gavin watson’s family and his state cronies that stripped the system for many years which also played a huge roll in todays infrastructure mess.
    Then, the rise in population of prisons can be laid squarely at the feet of the police and judicial system in the country and there will be always a man in chains protesting somewhere with or without popcru.
    This, or any other regime will never fix this, look at Chikurubi and Khami max just across the border and you will see the same happening here now.

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