‘Justice’ is neither swift nor just for Prisoner A

PRISONER A, a paraplegic awaiting-trial detainee. (Photo: supplied)

PRISONER A, a paraplegic awaiting-trial detainee. (Photo: supplied)

(Click here to see this article as it appeared in Business Day, 1 March 2013)


WE CAN pontificate about whether Oscar Pistorius gets special treatment in our courts, or whether his access to wealth and influence gets him a better quality of justice. Or we can listen to the story of another disabled accused, Prisoner A, a real person whose identity I have to protect because he is at the mercy of the same justice system as Pistorius.

Prisoner A has been in custody awaiting trial for more than two years. He is charged with fraud, a nonviolent crime, and should have got bail. His co-accused are out on bail. But he never applied because he did not have the money.

He is a paraplegic, injured in a shooting accident some years ago. He does not have a wheelchair in prison. He has crutches, but has to throw each leg forward with his arms. He cannot control his bladder, so he has to wear a nappy. He eats only once a day because he cannot get to the kitchen and other prisoners are forbidden from bringing him his food. He shares a cell designed for 32 people with 87 others, 12 sleeping on two double bunks pushed together, others sleeping on foam on the floor, including in the communal toilet area. Because of his condition, he has his own single bed.

The cell is a breeding ground for further medical problems. There are eight to 10 men in it with tuberculosis (TB) and one who has multidrug-resistant TB sleeping on the bunk above him.

Because he is in prison and unable to present himself for examination, his disability grant — which paid for his seven-year-old daughter’s schooling — has stopped. The prison social worker will not help him get it renewed because he is awaiting trial — it is only done for sentenced prisoners.

There is no permanent doctor in his prison and a converted cell with single beds serves as the sick room. The last time he needed medical attention, it took a week to get it. And even if a doctor prescribes medicine, he can seldom get it because it just isn’t available.

His wife visited him last week, the first time since 2011 because the prison is far from his home and it cost her R1,500 for transport. She brought food, nappies and medicine. She was only allowed to give him the nappies and when he complained, the visit was cut to just three minutes.

“I’m in constant pain. Sleep is the only escape. I’ve only seen a doctor here once, in September last year, and he prescribed medical shoes for me. I’m still waiting,” he says. Prisoner A was found and interviewed by Carolyn Raphaely of the Wits Justice Project, which investigates, reports on and campaigns for improvements in our justice system, particularly the conditions of awaiting-trial detainees. There are 46,000 of them, living in grossly overcrowded conditions, often worse than those of prisoners found guilty and already serving their sentences.”

When I heard Prisoner A’s story, I thought the media would grab it as a sidebar to the Pistorius case. It presented a rare chance to highlight the conditions and treatment of awaiting-trial prisoners. It was a pity we could not name him or the prison he was in, but he was nervous that the prison authorities would punish him for telling his story. But there was no doubting the authenticity of his story.

We offered Prisoner A’s tale, told in his own voice, to a daily newspaper. They did not have the space. We offered it to a major Sunday paper, and they were not interested. The Saturday Star ran it and, although they buried it far inside the paper, the WJP has had a number of offers of help for Prisoner A as a result.

I don’t want to beat around the bush. The courts should have given Prisoner A bail of R1 and the magistrate or prosecutor should have paid it and got him out. The Department of Correctional Services should have been given the power to give him medical parole and this is a case where it should be used. The doctors who visited the prison should have acted, as should the social workers.

Pistorius’s spin doctors should take on this case and Pistorius, or his friend and former prisoner, Kenny Kunene, should pay. Prisoner A needs it more than Pistorius does.

The media should cover it the way they covered Pistorius: endlessly, relentlessly and exhaustively. Throw out the ponderous pieces on the quality of Pistorius’s justice and take up Prisoner A’s case, which says everything we need to say about our justice system. Then there might be hope for justice for those who do not have the same resources, support and attention of someone such as Pistorius.

• Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. The WJP operates from his department.


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 ‘Justice’ is neither swift nor just for Prisoner A

  1. This needs to be forwarded to Amnesty International. He could be put on their list of prisoners needing release. Especially now that the world knows how violent and cruel we are in South Africa.

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