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The Government Takes a Key Step to Reduce Prison Overcrowding— but More is Required to Protect Inmates from COVID-19

  • May 22, 2020

Just Detention International–South Africa (JDI-SA) welcomes the Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services’ plan to release 19 000 low-risk inmates in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa’s prisons. Under the plan, people who have underlying health problems, the elderly, and women incarcerated with infants will be prioritised for release.

While this plan is a crucial move, JDI-SA urges the government to also include inmates awaiting trial on non-violent charges, while increasing counselling services for prisoners who will remain inside.

People awaiting trial account for 30 percent of South Africa’s prison population and are held in especially overcrowded and desperate conditions; many wait for months or years for their cases to be resolved. The government has announced that it will assist nearly 5 000 awaiting trial detainees who cannot afford to post bail, but without offering any detail. JDI-SA urges DCS immediately to clarify how this assistance will be provided.

JDI-SA and its partners in the Detention Justice Forum have been calling on the government to address prison overcrowding for years. South Africa’s prisons have about 118 000 approved bed spaces but hold more than 157 000 people; in some facilities, 90 detainees are forced to share cells built for 30 people. The overcrowding is so extreme that social distancing will remain impossible, even after the planned release of 19 000 inmates is carried out.

Prince Nare, Co-Director of JDI-SA, said: “The government’s plan to release prisoners will save lives. However, it does not go far enough. We urge the Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services to use the pandemic as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that it is to reduce prison overcrowding by also freeing people who are awaiting trial and not a danger to the community.

In addition to a bold release programme, JDI-SA encourages the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) to expand support services available to the countless inmates who will remain behind bars. Since its own mental health system is overstretched, DCS should offer confidential phone services by outside counselling organisations, such as long-time JDI-SA partner Lifeline Johannesburg. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services’ prison visitors must also be allowed to continue playing their crucial oversight role during the pandemic.

“South Africa’s prisons are plagued by sexual abuse,” said Nare. “The pandemic is making these facilities even more dangerous, as prisoners are cut off from the outside world and staffing levels are falling. JDI-SA has a long history of working with DCS to ensure the safety and dignity of the people in their care. We remain committed to working closely with DCS, and we believe that it is possible to protect incarcerated people from violence and abuse, even during a pandemic,” said Nare.