Wits Justice Project takes on 2011

Welcome to the new blog of the Wits Justice Project (WJP). Below we’ll tell you what we’re all about and if you look at the About the WJP section, you’ll get to meet us personally.

The WJP will use this blog to provide regular updates on cases, issues related to the project, and views and opinions of team members on news related to the criminal justice system. We will also provide excerpts of our recently published cases which can be viewed in their entirety on journalism.co.za.

We aim to get out of jail those people who have been incorrectly or unjustly convicted. We do this by investigating their cases, writing about the cases (thus bringing them to the attention of the public and the body politic), and then proceeding, if possible, to law – with the help of a number of partners.

By doing so, the WJP also aims to investigate and highlight the problems endemic in what is usually referred to as the justice system. By involving students and interns, we hope to introduce young journalists to human rights reporting and investigation and, as part of that, guide them into producing competent and compelling writing and broadcasting.

It is worth noting that ‘finding’ people who are incarcerated due to a miscarriage of justice is not as easy or rapid as might at first be thought – if only because almost everyone whose case is investigated (and these investigations take some time) insists, at least initially, that he/she is the victim of a major miscarriage.

During the last year we have dealt in particular with the problem of awaiting-trial-detainees (ATDs), which constitute one of the most prevalent ‘systemic problems’ in SA. For many, their constitutional rights have been and are being denied, yet they are mostly ignored by the system and society – and yet how to handle the problem legally is not a simple one.

Another systemic problem is the loss or non-availability of many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of trial transcripts, without which it is impossible for prisoners to exercise their constitutional right to appeal.

This year we have chosen to home in on the situation of ATDs – the conditions under which they are incarcerated and the amount of time they are held – and will use a multipronged approach to increase awareness of this situation and push for reform.

The WJP has done most of its work with ATDs at Johannesburg Prison. This population is a fluctuating one but at the time of writing there are about 6 000 ATDs in a prison, Medium A, built for about 2 900 detainees. We have gained access for detailed one-on-one interviews through our connections with social workers and chaplains. Last year, Carolyn Raphaely did detailed work with ex-ATD Bridget Makhonza.

The WJP has also featured on Radio 702 a number of times; Gordin has been interviewed about ATDs.  Makhonza also spoke at the 2010 Power Reporting conference, during which she held an audience spell-bound.

Another area that we have been concerned with at the WJP has been publicising and writing about the issue of missing transcripts. We have been involved since August 2009 in the matter of Michael Millie plus 28 Others vs. The Minister of Justice et al, which is something of a ‘test case’ in the matter of missing trial records. This case, in which 29 convicts have brought (what they believe is) a ‘class action’ against the minister (and Legal Aid SA!) regarding missing trial records, has been shepherded through the courts by the WJP.

Overall the WJP has become well known, mainly in Gauteng and the Free State, and especially with prisoners. We receive approximately five letters a week from convicts and numerous telephone calls – half of which relate to missing trial records.

The WJP has done well over the last year in terms of disseminating its ‘name’ among prisoners and among social work/chaplaincy staff, especially at Johannesburg prison (‘Sun City’), as well as to Legal Aid South Africa (LASA).

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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