Crowded prisons shock


Forty-one prisoners share 24 beds in a communal cell meant to accommodate 15 people.

These are the conditions described by inmates in a Northern Cape prison, which experts claim are common in prisons across the country.

Fed up prisoners at the Old Kimberley Correctional Services Centre this week dragged the Minister of Correctional Services to court over what they said was a violation of their human rights.

In an application filed in the high court, the prisoners claim they share one toilet, one urinal crib, two showers and two wash basins. In an affidavit, awaiting trial prisoner Wouter Viljoen described the conditions at the prison as unlawful and cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment and punishment.

“The toilet in the cell cannot flush and a bucket must be used to flush the toilet. Other detainees must sleep on the floor near the toilet where the floor is always full of water,” he said in his affidavit.

“The cell is overrun with lice while cockroaches and rats come into the cell at night. I, together with the other detainees were forced to sit in the cell for 22 out of 24 hours.”

The issues raised by the Kimberley inmates were similar to the findings made by Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron after his visit to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town that “detainees are treated worse than animals”.

Ten months ago the Western Cape High Court ordered the department to reduce overcrowding at Pollsmoor to 150% by June this year. In June, civil rights group Sonke Gender Justice said official statistics showed that for the first time in more than a decade, Pollsmoor was operating at 147.62% of capacity.

While the department has been commended by civil rights groups for improving the living conditions at Pollsmoor, serious overcrowding and health hazards are common features, especially at smaller prisons. In Kimberley, the remand detainees claim the conditions are worsening daily as their population grows and space reduces. Among many demands, they want to be provided with 3344m² of floor space and 8.5m³ of airspace in the communal cells.

An inmate, Roy September, who has been awaiting trial for a year, said there were no lights or electricity in his cell.

He said he had made various written applications complaining. “People sleep on the floor with mattresses cut in half. It does not support a good night’s sleep.”

Another prisoner said: “The only exercise I am allowed to do is to walk up and down the yard. There is no recreational equipment to stay healthy, no sports in which I can participate, no gym equipment, or recreational games. No reason is given to why I only receive the minimum of one hour’s exercise.”

In May this year, Correctional Services Minister Mike Masutha said South Africa’s prisons were overcrowded by 137%, due to a long history of insufficient accommodation, inappropriate and ageing infrastructure, as well as growing and high levels of incarceration.

Prisoner Rights Activist Golden Miles Bhudu said all South African prisons were overcrowded and the dire conditions made it impossible to turn prisoners into model citizens. “Giving them skills to come out and be productive members of society is impossible.”

As part of ensuring humane treatment of prisoners, the Detention Justice Forum together with Sonke Gender Justice and various other NGOs launched the One Judge-One Prison project, which sees judges monitor prison conditions.

The Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services says Johannesburg’s “Sun City” is 233% full and short of 1736 beds. St Albans in the Eastern Cape is 198% overcrowded while Polokwane Prison is 231% overcrowded.

Sonke says nearly 300000 people are admitted to remand facilities each year.