Judges have a duty to visit prison

by Tshepang Sebulela

The Wits Justice Project recently hosted a talk show at the former women’s prison at Constitution Hill. The talk show was held under the banner “It Could Be You.” Speakers included former offenders, world renowned photographer David Goldblatt, former treason detainee Alan Fine and Constitutional Court judge Justice Edwin Cameron.

In his speech Justice Cameron spoke of the conditions in private prisons. He found them to be satisfactory. He also spoke of the dedication of correctional services personnel. He made reference to Section 99 of the Correctional Services Act of 1998 subsection (1).  This clause states that a judge of the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court of Appeal or High Court, and a magistrate within his or her area of jurisdiction, may visit a correctional centre at any time. Subsection (2) gives the presiding officers access to any part of a correctional centre and any documentary record, and may interview any inmate and bring any matter to the attention of the National Commissioner, the Minister, the National Council or the Inspecting Judge.


This provision does not compel presiding officers to visit correctional centres  and we see this by its use of the words “may” instead of must , meaning  they choose to visit or not and if they choose not to, no one can inquire into that or hold them in contemp. We also see this by the legislators not detailing on when and how this exercise can be regulated. This is a step in the right direction but how practical is this provision? Presiding officers are arguably the most preoccupied practitioners in the legal fraternity and can use this excuse or justification for not exercising powers given to them.

Would it not make sense for the legislators to enforce this provision rather than making it optional? It only makes sense for judicial and correctional officers on all levels to visit our prisons in order to see the challenging conditions the inmates go through. South Africa’s prisons are seriously overcrowded. Prisoners have to cope with restricted living space, poor sanitation, the spread of disease, unsatisfactory food, and inadequate healthcare, all of which breeds tension and violence and can lead to human rights violations. What Justice Cameron and other judges who do visit prison is great but I also wish if a structure would be put in place to allow both judicial officers and members of the correctional services at higher level. This will remove the veil and show the conditions and in that way means can be put in place to fix the conditions in our prisons and fight torture, maladministration and overcrowding.

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

One Response to Judges have a duty to visit prison

  1. Duma Fikile Masala says:

    I support your plea fully Mr Sebulela. Because from what I hear about our prisons, all the human rights entrenched in Chapter 2 of the Constitution are infringed immensely. Especially Chapter 2, section 11. Prisons are meant to be correction facilities and not to make hardened criminals.

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