Our prisons need a watchdog with teeth

ImageRecent riots show the rights of inmates are being ignored, writes Ruth Hopkins, published in the Sunday Times on 13 January 2013

MINISTER of Correctional Services Sbu Ndebele has condemned the riots that broke out in Groenpunt prison on Monday, calling them the worst in South African history. According to Ndebele: “There are proper channels; as inmates there will be complaints; it is the right of inmates to have their food and water.”

More than 200 inmates in the maximum security unit of the prison in Deneysville in the Free State refused to eat and set fire to the administration buildings and some cells. They turned shower heads and rods into handmade weapons and pelted broken floor tiles at the warders. The inmates were dissatisfied that their complaints about food and a lack of training and rehabilitation programmes were not being dealt with.

At the end of November, inmates in the Mangaung prison in Bloemfontein also put up a fight and a nurse and doctor were taken hostage.

Interestingly, in neither case did inmates orchestrate escapes amid the chaos and violence. There were no demands for getaway cars or helicopters and no calls for ransom money.

Given the violent nature of the acts, their pleas were surprisingly modest. The Groenpunt prisoners demanded improved conditions, such as a better diet, education and rehabilitation programmes, and the Mangaung inmates wanted to be transferred to a prison in Gauteng so that they would be closer to their loved ones and because they could no longer bear the often violent conditions where they were.

If, as Ndebele claims, there are proper channels for grievances, why are inmates resorting to drastic measures? The first port of call for prisoners who wish to file a complaint is the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, which is headed by an inspecting judge, Vuka Tshabalala. The inspectorate’s mandate is to monitor and inspect correctional facilities.

However, prisoners who have written to or spoken with the Wits Justice Project complain that although the independent correctional centre visitors who work for the inspectorate do register their complaints, there is no follow-up. Moreover, the inspectorate has not been able to effectively address the serious issue of torture, despite receiving and processing complaints about it.

The use of force by prison officials is not legally defined in the criminal code. Inmates are punished disproportionately with electric shocks, batons, leg irons and pepper spray.

It took a former inmate and his lawyer to litigate and legally address this issue. In 2004, Bradley McCallum and 230 other inmates were stripped naked, sodomised, beaten and given electric shocks in Port Elizabeth’s St Albans prison when warders retaliated for the murder of a colleague in the prison. McCallum and his lawyer took the case to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which ruled that this treatment could be qualified as torture.

The inspectorate could play a role in decreasing and addressing incidences of assault on and torture of prisoners if its findings and recommendations could be legally enforced. Despite including figures on assault in its annual reports, in the past three years there have not been any criminal prosecutions of officials implicated in the assault and death of inmates.

This is not because the inspecting judge and his team are indifferent to the fate of prisoners, but because the institutional design of his office does not allow for much interference in human rights violations. The inspectorate is not an independent body, because it is financed by and accountable to the Department of Correctional Services. It receives complaints and notes them, but it has no investigative powers.

And, importantly, there is no legislation to enforce the inspecting judge’s recommendations.

There should be a truly independent watchdog with the power to intervene on behalf of this vulnerable group in society, in line with international best practice. This is not only a matter of principle, but can be one of life and death, as the spread of tuberculosis in prisons has made clear.

The inspectorate has reported the spread of tuberculosis in prisons for years, warning that it poses a huge risk. The spread of the illness goes unchecked, which has allowed what should be a manageable pulmonary disease to rapidly infect and kill inmates, who are crammed into overcrowded cells with poor ventilation, little sunlight and scarce access to doctors and medication.

This situation was addressed when a tenacious former inmate, Dudley Lee, pursued a lengthy legal process that culminated in a Constitutional Court judgment two months ago. It held t h at the department had acted negligently by not respecting its own health regulations and was therefore responsible for Lee’s infection with tuberculosis. This will probably set a positive precedent for other inmates infected with the disease.

When confronted with the multiple flaws in the prison system, the department points at the shortage of qualified staff. However, there is no lack of financial resources to fix this issue.

The first-quarter expenditure report of the department, presented to the parliamentary portfolio committee three months ago, revealed underspending in the programmes for incarceration, rehabilitation, care and social reintegration — exactly the areas that caused the Groenpunt and Mangaung inmates to riot.

The prison system provides a fertile breeding ground for more rioting. The position of remand detainees, who comprise roughly one-third of the total 160 000 prisoners in South Africa, is arguably worse than that of the Groenpunt and Mangaung prisoners, who were incarcerated in the sentenced section. There are 2 700 awaiting-trial detainees — innocent until proven guilty — who have been locked up for two years or more because the court system is severely clogged. Educational facilities, including libraries, are non-existent in remand detention centres. Inmates are classified as noncontact prisoners and are therefore not allowed to touch their loved ones when they visit.

It is a matter of time before new riots erupt if the government does not provide inmates with effective legal recourse when their rights and dignity are infringed. The Department of Correctional Services is violating its own rules and regulations by not addressing poor prison conditions. Ndebele and the government need to recognise that there are no “proper channels” for prisoners’ grievances. The office of the inspecting judge should therefore be endowed with the power to properly investigate and address human rights violations of prisoners.

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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.

One Response to Our prisons need a watchdog with teeth

  1. bernard mitchell says:

    I’m. A prisoner serving a life and a 15 year sentence. It the very first time I’ve read an article by journalist who actualy knows whts going on behind prison bars. I’ve been in prison now for 15 years. And have seen how 20 to 30 warders attack 1 inamate. At several prisons where I serve my sentence in the western cape. And every day I see how our rights are being raped. Prisons are a state and law on to there own. Prison warders are like a big family. They stand together no matter one of them was wrong. That’s like there code of condu. ct. Never to turn on one another. As an inmate I have to be scared to lay a complain against a warder cause out of fear of victimization. I was at a prison here in the western cape where a white warders told me infront of another prisoner. In 2011. That the Minister of correctional services is a “KAFFER SISIE HY NAI DI KAT DAAR” I wrote a reprt to the head of prison to report the incident. She told me they will investigate it internally.

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