Report says gangsterism, overcrowding major problems
Chilling details of overcrowded prisons, where gang wars, power struggles, the spread of contagious diseases and extreme desensitisation of inmates are rife, are contained in a report released by a Correctional Services watchdog.
The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) report released last month paints a bleak picture.
In the Eastern Cape, St Albans Medium Prison was 194% overcapacity and short of 709 beds, followed by Lusikisiki, which was 193% overcapacity and short of 138 beds, in the period covered by the report.
The report, titled “People Are Living There”, contains information gathered between April last year and March this year, before inspecting judge Johann van der Westhuizen took office.
The inspectorate’s job is to safeguard the human rights of inmates, oversee the running of the correctional system and make recommendations on how to improve the system. Van der Westhuizen, a former Constitutional Court justice and high court judge, was appointed in May.
The JICS received 60 767 complaints, ranging from belongings being confiscated to assault and torture, in the period.
Van der Westhuizen states that the public’s view is that criminals have too many rights, crime victims are being neglected, and “prisons are not luxury hotels”.
He said: “Prisons are indeed not luxury hotels. They are not cages, torture chambers or zoos either.
“In criminal trials, I often tried hard to understand why the accused would stab a 78-year-old woman, eat her canned fruit at the kitchen table while she is bleeding to death on the floor, and rape her after she died; stab a child for a cellphone or systematically defraud a trusting church for which they work.
“In a courtroom, the judge sits quite far away from the accused, witnesses and lawyers.
“This distance may be good for impartiality and clinical thinking.
“But during visits to correctional facilities, I observed close up, among other things, the chilling direct stare of a serial killer and the small soft hands of a gang leader serving seven life sentences.”
The report lists a case study where it was found that young gang members were more volatile and unpredictable as they did not follow the gangs’ rules and codes.
Inmates remanded in custody for a short period pending bail applications or court appearances were also more susceptible to violence and gangsterism.
In total, 13 investigations were conducted in which gangsterism was found to be one of the main causes of most of the violence plaguing prisons.
“Several gang-related stabbings and other instances of intra-gang violence caused officials to use force to separate the warring factions,” the report says.
In some prisons, there were reports of knives – allegedly hidden in the back of police vehicles transporting inmates to and from court – used in fights in transit.
One of the issues raised was that detainees assaulted in gang-related squabbles often did not open criminal cases as they wanted retribution, sparking a cycle of violence.
The report’s recommendations include enhancing joint intergovernment communication, employing gang experts, prosecuting any gang-related attack under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, and working with the police to open cases speedily in gang incidents before the inmate is released.
Complaints mentioned in the report include being given rotten food, fluctuating meal times and the size of portions.
“For inmates infected with HIV, a nutritious diet is necessary for ARVs to be effective,” the report states. It was found that inflexible meal times are a major barrier to adherence of medication, especially those ARVs that require administration with meals and fluids.”
Overcrowding is highlighted as an “apex problem”, providing ideal conditions for the rapid spread of contagious diseases, including TB, HIV/Aids and the H1N1 flu virus.
Eastern Cape Correctional Services commissioner Nkosinathi Breakfast said their centre were constantly revising measures to reduce overcrowding.
She said that as of yesterday, the actual bed space at St Albans was 3 103 versus the 5 082 inmates at the prison.