The Wits Justice Project’s View on President Zuma’s Freedom Day remissions

The Wits Justice Project welcomes President Zuma’s announcement of presidential remissions on Freedom Day. It has brought about a much needed focus on overcrowding in South African prisons.

However, the proposed measure applies to sentenced inmates and has no impact on the severe and unacceptable situation faced by a third of inmates: those awaiting trial. Remand detainees, some behind bars for years, are those waiting for their trials to begin or reach conclusion. Yet many of these inmates will eventually be acquitted. This means that a staggering number of innocent people are being deprived of their freedom.

For example, In Johannesburg’s remand detention centre you will find 60 men crammed into communal cells that were built to house 20. This does not only lead to uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, with inmates ending up on the floor or three to a bed, but also to overused sanitary facilities. Such conditions enable the rapid spread of communicable diseases and engender violence among inmates.

If the South African government is serious about its aim to tackle prison overcrowding, then it should not only focus on ad-hoc and media-friendly measures such as the proposed remissions, but should also analyse and address root causes: poor and indigent South Africans can often not afford bail and as a result end up in jail for unnecessarily long periods. The court system – especially the lower courts – is overburdened and not capable of handling the case load efficiently. This leads to endless delays and postponements for remand prisoners.

In the  same remand facility in Johannesburg, there are 400 inmates who have been there for three years or more, sometimes for minor offences that do not even carry a three year sentence, and despite the fact thatall remand detainees are presumed innocent under the South African law,.

The government is clearly working to decrease overcrowding in prisons, but it should not focus solely on the end of the chain; remissions for long term inmates or the recently introduced electronic monitoring for parolees. The Wits Justice Project is concerned that systemic flaws in the initial stages of the criminal justice system are not being addressed.

The Wits Justice Project is part of the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand and aims to impact significantly on the lives of people by striving for changes in the criminal justice system.

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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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