Last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that around 19 000 inmates would be released from various prisons to curb the spread of the coronavirus and deal with overcrowding.
THE DEPARTMENT of Correctional Services (DCS) was yet to release any of the inmates who have qualified for Covid-19 parole.
“The placement of qualifying sentenced offenders shall commence as soon as all parole board processes have been finalised and all relevant rehabilitation and pre-release programmes are attended,” said DCS spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo.
Last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that around 19 000 convicts would be released from various prisons to curb the spread of Covid-19 and deal with overcrowding.
Women, children and the elderly have been prioritised on the list of those to be released, followed by offenders with shorter sentences.
Nxumalo said the decision to release prisoners on parole was crucial in ensuring prevention, containment, treatment and recovery.
“The department is not oblivious to the concerns of society towards releasing offenders before their sentence expiry dates. We arrived at this decision after careful consideration of the facts before us. This measure is aimed at protecting the entire spectrum of South Africa from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“With the total inmate population of 156 000, an outbreak in DCS facilities would be catastrophic. Some of the correctional facilities are more than 100% overpopulated and, as a consequence, it will be difficult to address, manage and prevent the spread of Covid-19 within them.”
Low risk offenders who have passed their minimum detention period will also be considered for release.
As of this week, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in correctional facilities was 732, with 256 officials and 476 inmates infected. Five deaths have been confirmed – three in the Eastern Cape and two in the Western Cape.
Nxumalo said the population reduction in prisons would help create an enabling environment to confront Covid-19.
“This process will also include a comprehensive screening process for inmates, including but not limited to taking of their fingerprints and DNA samples by the SAPS and soliciting inputs from departmental social workers and criminologists, which is a critical criteria for placement on parole.
“Victims will be afforded an opportunity to make representations during the parole consideration process. Participation of families and communities and other stakeholders will also assist with the mitigation of risk.”
However, the delay has led to violence in prisons countrywide.
Golden Miles Bhudu of the SA Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights blamed the department for the dysfunction.
“The tragedy is the prison department couldn’t smoothly proceed with that process because their systems are and remain dysfunctional,” said Bhudu.
“From the corrections management community filing systems to the parole boards knowledge and experience, responsibilities and duties of what a parole board is mandated to do, to the community corrections that are mandated to monitor released parolees, everything is a complete mess.”
Bhudu believes the government’s process of choosing which prisoners will be released was an unfair process.
“The special remission by the president was not fair and tottered on unfair discrimination and contradicts the Chapter 2: Bill of Rights – Section 9(1)(2). The point is also made that previous presidents never categorised crimes when special remissions were announced.”
He said prison officials are also to blame for the rapid spread in prisons.
“Inmates have been in permanent lockdown. We understand that the very first infection of prisoners came as a result of a prison warden that attended a funeral and, according to her, got infected, and further infected prisoners and her colleagues, when she reported for duty. The prison department only at a later stage started the sanitisation, washing of hands, surgical masks, hand gloves and PPEs (personal protective equipment).
“There is overcrowding, no surgical masks and gloves for them, let alone PPEs. Prisoners are periodically strip searched by guards, without wearing gloves, surgical masks and PPEs, looking for so-called contraband cellular phones, which are smuggled in.
“Visits have been suspended for two months, resulting in prisoners not being able to get money from their families to buy their own toiletries.”