Briefing by Selected Parole Board Chairpersons on Challenges in the Functioning of Parole Boards

Correctional Services

07 September 2009
Chairperson: Mr V Smith (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Portfolio Committee met with the Parole Board Chairpersons from selected management areas to establish whether the parole boards were functioning effectively and, if not, to look at the concerns facing the parole boards in discharging their mandate. Each Chairperson gave a brief presentation, concentrating on the challenges. Many of the challenges were identified as common to all. Almost all parole board Chairpersons took issue with the lack of support, particularly by the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the Department of Justice. These two departments formed a part of the Parole Board but often were unavailable, or failed to provide the necessary documentation and information to enable the Board to execute its duties. Most Boards complained that sentencing information was not made available. The issue of composition of the Board was of concern, as the Department often provided more than one member on the Board, and there was a problem in getting community members. Some Board chairpersons had problems with their own contracts, saying that they had been acting as chairpersons despite their title, or were left in the dark regarding remuneration, including a lack of uniformity in the way that salaries were assessed and paid. One Boards described the resources at its disposal as “pathetic”, with the result that they had to outsource psychology or criminology work at great cost, and other Boards also raised the issue of insufficient support. 

The thorny issue of medical parole was discussed at length, featuring in almost every presentation. It was revealed that doctors were either not cooperative or did not fully understand the parameters of the legislation governing the granting of parole based on medical grounds. Two Chairpersons said that the legislation needed to be amended to make provision for people with disabilities to be released on parole, especially those who were in a vegetative state, and those who had reached advanced stages of HIV/AIDS. However, some also noted that in their areas they had experienced lack of willingness by family members to offer support. There were also problems with the lack of proper victim empowerment programmes; although some facilities offered mediation or empowerment, they could not be accessed due to problems of distance and cost.

Another issue of concern was the perceived or actual lack of independence from the Department, sometimes caused by actual interference by the Department of Correctional Services in various areas. Top management structures of the Department were marginalising some of the parole boards in their management areas. The issue of lack of resources and personnel was highlighted by all, with the recent spending cuts by the Department worsening the situation.

Committee members expressed their dismay with the situation. They questioned whether the problems in composition could lead to challenges to the validity of decisions being taken. They questioned medical parole in general and in specific instances. They asked whether the Boards could identify the particular problems leading to lack of trained personnel, and expressed their disquiet that members of the Department were not available to address many of the issues.

Meeting report

Parole Board (Board ) Chairperson presentations
Mr Richard Maketlo, Chairperson of the Kimberley Parole Board, outlined challenges faced by his management area as ranging from lack of proper compliance with the legislation governing parole boards with regard to community members’ participation, since members were being appointed on a monthly basis instead of a proper three-year tenure. He also highlighted the shortage of skilled personnel at the disposal of the Board. Critical skills such as social workers, psychologists and criminologists were of huge importance but not easily available. Another issue raised by Mr Maketlo was the issue of cooperation with other departments. He highlighted an example of sentence profile reports. These were critical for the Board to do its mandate but often the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ) or the South African Police Service (SAPS) could not make these available to the boards, causing a setback to the entire process. The issue of budget was also raised as an impediment in the functioning of the Board. Mr Maketlo reported that due to the belt-tightening call by the Government, the budget of the parole boards was cut by 40.89%. There was also a concern that the Department of Correctional Services (DSC) did not give parole boards their deserved recognition and respect. Mr Maketlo said in most instances they were at the mercy of DCS officials who often excluded them from key management meetings, inviting the Board members only when it suited them.

Parole Board report
Ms Seipati Dichabe, Grootvlei Parole Board Chairperson, said her area management faced a number of challenges too. She raised the issue of non-parole sentences by magistrates, saying that sometimes an offender would be given a sentence that prescribed that he or she must spend at least 80% of their time in prison, saying that this to a certain extent was inconsistent with the legislation governing parole. The other challenge raised by Ms Dichabe was the issue of juvenile offenders. She said there were three juvenile offenders in the facilities of her management area and the conditions in these facilities were not favourable for them in terms of rehabilitation programmes. Similar to her colleague from Kimberley, she also raised the issue of lack of participation from the SAPS and the Department of Justice, as well as the issue of hostility from the DCS. She was at pains to mention that the Parole Board members were not advised as to what their remuneration was. She mentioned some inconsistencies on her salary level, saying sometimes she was told she is at the level of deputy-director, in terms of DCS categorization, but this was not matched by the package that she received.    

St Albans Parole Board report

Ms Vuyelwa Luzipho, Chairperson of the St Albans Parole Board, highlighted that St Albans had one instead of two parole boards functional. She raised five key challenges that her Parole Board was facing. The first was the lack of provincial structures for the assistance and support of victims. She said sometimes victims of crime at the communities would approach the Board to enquire why an offender had been released and many often accused the Board of only caring for the offenders and not them. She said this could be averted by providing some form of counseling for the victims, and she said she often found herself counselling these victims despite the fact that she was not trained to do so. Non-availability of supporting documents, such as sentencing remarks and previous convictions, to enable the Board to make a profile, was another problem. This information was needed to help the Board to determine what was in the mind of the sentencing magistrate when he or she handed down the sentence. Ms Luzipho also raised concerns about the cooperation the Board received from doctors, saying that often they would give inconclusive reports or would contradict each other in their assessment about whether the Section 79 threshold has been met, namely, whether an offender was terminally ill and in the last stages of the illness. Another concern raised was the general lack of rehabilitation support resources. She said the Board often faced offenders who demanded to be released on parole despite not having undergone a single rehabilitation programme, and these offenders threatened to take legal action if not considered for parole.

Pollsmoor Parole Board Report

Mr Zalisile Mkhontwana, Chairperson of the Pollsmoor Parole Board, said one of this Board’s major challenges lay in the composition of the parole board. He was at pains to point out that his Parole Board had a strained working relationship with SAPS. In most instances, when the Board met, SAPS representatives would come empty handed. He said the Board would be told that the SAPS had a heavy workload and could not provide information that the Board required. He pleaded with Members of the Committee to help secure at least one SAPS member to be fully dedicated to working with parole boards. He said his ideal situation would be to have at least one SAPS member per three parole boards. On the issue of professional staff, he said the situation was “pathetic”. The whole Board had one psychologist, and not a single criminologist, prompting them to outsource some of these services at a hefty cost. The Victim Empowerment Programme, was run poorly due to lack of resources to bring victims into the process. Another issue closely tied to this was that many victims were not given enough support to deal with coming into contact with their offenders, with the result that many were not prepared to have any contact at all.

He also elaborated on the challenges the Board faced when dealing with medical parole. He said doctors would write a report but would not specifically indicate whether the offender had reached the last stages of terminal illness; some maintained that they could not even predict when the offender was likely to die. Mr Mkhontwana also said there were other groups of offenders that the Board struggled with when considering parole; those who, although not terminally ill, were in a vegetative state. In his view, those types of offenders deserved to be released on parole but there was no provision under law to release them since they may not be classified as terminally ill. Mr Mkhontwana also touched on the issue of the contracts of employment, saying the Board members did not know what the future held for them.

Johannesburg 1 Parole Board report
Ms Mantoa Mokhobo, Chairperson of Johannesburg 1 Parole Board, spoke of the challenges faced by her Board. One of the challenges had to do with the sentencing of offenders, in that information of what transpired at the sentencing was not easily accessible to the Board. She also raised concerns that most of the rehabilitation programmes were not geared towards assisting short term offenders. She also said lack of proper planning resulted in lawsuits being launched by offenders who demanded to be considered for parole even though they may not have gone through all the stages required. Ms Mokhobo also told the Committee members that although there were rehabilitative short courses offered to offenders by the DCS, they were not done on a regular basis and were poorly coordinated. With regard to staff, she said her management area had only one psychologist to service all parole boards at four centres.

Turning on to medical parole, Ms Mokhoba noted that her Board also had a challenge with doctors not giving information that could easily be assessed in terms of the law, and this included reluctance to pronounce on estimated life expectancy. The issue of support system was also raised as a challenge facing the parole boards. Ms Mokhobo said that in terms of the legislation, offenders must be released into the care of family members or relatives, but often these were not willing to cooperate. In the case of foreigners, the Department of Home Affairs was not keen to cooperateg with the parole boards, particularly when dealing with the issue of repatriating sick offenders to their countries.

Johannesburg 2 Parole Board report
Mr Vincent Jones, Chairperson of Johannesburg 2 Parole Board, spoke of the challenges facing his Board. Mr Jones noted that this Board was effective in the sense that it had made some remarkable improvements from the past situation, but not effective in that the Board was not yet where it should be. He said there was a challenge with regard to the independence of the parole boards. He said parole boards in his management area were not independent from the influence of DCS. He said there was a lack of proper coordination, which resulted in a lot of inconsistencies with the decisions the Boards took. Another form of inconsistency was the lack of a standardised remuneration strategy. He said some Parole Board members received a thirteenth cheque, while others did not.

There was a reported high level of bureaucracy and red-tape within DCS, and this impeded the functioning of the Parole Board. He gave an example that a trip sheet had to be signed off by a whole chain of officials within DCS, many of whom regarded this process as doing a favour to the Parole Board, rather than doing their duty. Mr Jones also spoke of the Review Boards, and noted that they should be strengthened in order to avoid a situation where offenders resorted to courts for assistance without exhausting available remedies, including appearing before the Review Board. On the issue of medical parole, he said more needed to be done to ensure cooperation with doctors who, for example, would recommend that “for the best result, this offender must be placed on medical parole”. He said this was inconsistence with the demands of Section 79 of the legislation governing medical parole, which demanded that parole on medical grounds should be granted in cases of terminal illness, as opposed to ‘best result’ of the offender.

Leeuwkop Parole Board report
Mr Moses Maimela, Chairperson of one of the parole boards in the Leeuwkop Correctional facilities, said the first challenge facing his Board was staff shortage. He said his management area was short of two chairpersons, one secretary and one community member to service the facility. He highlighted the stakeholder involvement of SAPS and DOJ as problematic. Victim participation was a major problem as often offenders would leave it up to the stakeholders to deal with them. Very few offenders were placed on medical parole, although there was a high number of sick offenders who would probably qualify for medical parole if cooperation with doctors was improved. In this area, only 12 offenders had been placed on medical parole. Mr Maimela also spoke of the offender profile challenge. He said that more often than not the Board received profiles without documents such as the crime prescription report and report on previous convictions, nor remarks on sentencing. There was a lack also of support systems from family members.

Boksburg Parole Board report
Mr France Mookisi, Vice Chairperson of the Boksburg Parole Board, said one of the challenges facing his Board was in regard to its composition. He said he had for a long time been used as a Chairperson, despite his job description. The Board still had no permanent community members and often had to use community members from other parole boards, which was made more difficult because it did not have the budget to carry transport costs, and the Board would be reminded of the need for the Department to cut down on expenses. Mr Mookisi also raised the issue of independence, saying parole boards lacked proper independence, which should be jealously guarded for the effective functioning of the boards. He said that if measures were not taken to entrench this independence, South Africa ran the risk of being faced with litigation based on interference with the independence of the parole boards. He said that in England, offenders had already challenged parole boards in court, arguing undue influence from the Minister, and had scored significant victories, setting a powerful precedent. He spoke strongly about the need for parole boards to reclaim their credibility, which was often ridiculed by the media, although he conceded that sometimes this was justifiable. He then urged the Committee Members to move swiftly in addressing the issue of appointing permanent Board Chairpersons, pointing out that this was, in addition to hindering the Board, contrary to the legislation.

Barberton Parole Board report
Mr Christian Msimango, Chairperson of the Barberton Parole Board, said the working conditions of the Board being under the watchful eye of DCS had resulted in low morale at the workplace. He said there was a serious lack of trained staff and rehabilitation programmes in general. As an example, Mr Msimango said that there was only one social worker and one psychologist for the entire correctional facility. Victim involvement was also raised as a major concern and often this was owing to a lack of information on the part of victims, which stalled the much important victim-offender mediation process. He said the end result of this was a lack of faith by the community in the legitimacy of parole boards, which, ultimately, led to the community casting doubt on decisions the Board took. The lack of financial and material resources were also mentioned as a major stumbling block facing the parole boards. Mr Msimango said there was a serious shortage of vehicles to service the management area of Barberton. He went further to say that the recent recession and belt-tightening exercises by DCS had resulted in massive reduction of the budget for parole boards, and the moratorium issued by DCS on the filling of vacancies had resulted in serious shortage of personnel to serve on the parole boards.

In proposing the measures that could be taken to overcome some of the challenges, Mr Msimango said there was an urgent need to address the conditions of service. He also said there should be constant interactions through presentations and verbal engagements with Area Commissioners. He also said there was a dire need to overhaul the quality of rehabilitation programmes designed to involve victim participation in the whole process. He said more needed to be done to raise community awareness of the need to work with parole boards, and this could be done through distribution of pamphlets, and holding community forums in partnership with local government. Mr Msimango said something drastic needed to be done to improve the lack of financial and other resources available to the parole boards and this could be easily achieved through co-opting local business people and motor companies who might consider donating a vehicle to the parole boards.

Durban Parole Board report
Mr Boniface Tshabangu, Vice-Chairperson of the Durban Parole Board,  said that medical paroles lay at the core of his Board’s challenges. Although he did not wish to repeat what his colleagues had said with regard to the issue, he emphasised that all boards were reliant on information provided by medical doctors for making their decisions. The law was silent on what must happen if there was miraculous recovery of the offender. He also urged Committee Members to revisit the issue of physically-challenged offenders who may not be considered as terminally ill. Mr Tshabangu further said he had no choice but to repeat what had already been said by other presenters on the relationship they had with SAPS and the DOJ with regard to their obligations to assist parole boards. The scarcity of resources slowed down the functioning of the process. There was a further issue of vacant posts. He described all these factors as combining to put the parole boards on the slippery slope towards collapsing.

The Chairperson urged the Chairpersons of the parole boards to be as frank as possible in their response to the Committee, so that Members could be advised of exactly where and how to provide their assistance. He also said he was aware that some of their responses may trigger anger from the Departmental officials, and that although this had the potential to sour relationships in the short term, this was the opportunity to raise grievances. If anyone was victimized because of the information being conveyed,  Parliament would do everything possible to protect him or her.

The Chairperson noted that many of the presentations had raised the challenge of getting community members on the Board. The Act was very clear that there must be two community members sitting on the Parole Board. There should not be any deviation from this procedure.

The Chairperson also noted that in most presentations, it was revealed that there was more than one official deployed to the parole boards by the DSC. He wondered if this was not a cause for the lack of independence. He also raised concerns on the role of those individuals deployed by the Minister of Correctional Services, saying it seemed these people were allotted to doing paperwork rather than partake in policy making. He expressed regret on the apparent deliberate undermining of the law.

Ms Dichabe said that the legislation did not require the Department to deploy someone who would contribute to the policy formulation of the parole board. She said the Regional Commissioner had a mandate to appoint one secretary, whose task was mainly concerned with administrative issues.

Mr J Selfe (DA) expressed shock and disbelief on the presentations, particularly on the independence of the parole boards. He said Parliamentarians had to review the legislation to give parole boards enough autonomy to execute their functions without fear or favour, and this was clearly not the case on the ground. He said it was shocking to hear of inconsistencies with regard to remuneration and retention strategies. He asked whether the parole boards where equipped to handle and account for its own budget.

Mr Selfe asked why St Albans in particular had only one Parole Board instead of two, as required.

Ms Luzipho said the question of why there was one instead of two parole boards was a difficult question for her to answer. She said that since her appointment in 2005, she had constantly been phoning DCS officials enquiring about the second parole board, but that it was still not functional and she had not received a final answer. Sometimes she would be told that there were no funds to set up the second parole board, although she was aware that two buildings were built at St. Albans for two parole boards, neither of which was yet being occupied. The fact that there was only one Parole Board instead of two was overloading the existing Parole Board with work, since it had to service all the facilities by itself.

Mr N Fihla (ANC) said he was concerned about the fair treatment of offenders after such revelations. He felt it would have been much useful to have DCS officials sitting side by side with Parole Board members as many of the questions he had could best be answered by DCS officials. He also expressed his concern about and asked why there was more than one official from the Department sitting on the parole boards. He said in his view there was a need to re-look at the composition of the parole boards because it may well be the root cause of interference.

Mr Fihla turned to issues of victim participation and community involvement, and said the problem with the South African criminal justice system was that it regarded proceedings as the offender versus the State, rather than offender versus the victim. He said New Zealand was one example where the victim played a pivotal role in the prosecution of crime, and this gave victims a sense of fulfillment that justice had been done or at least seen to be done. Lastly he wanted to know what plans were being made in order to improve the involvement of victims either in the parole application considerations, or in victim-offender mediation process.

Ms Luzipho said she had held several meetings to try and resolve this dilemma and she was told that there was a victim structure situated in East London, which was supposed to facilitate in this process. However, this centre was so far from St. Albans that many victims could not afford to travel to make use of the facility. The Department said it has no money to assist the victims to travel back and forth.

Mr Fihla commented, in relation to medical parole, that he was aware that offenders could pretend to be terminally ill in order to get medical parole. He wanted to know if the parole boards had measures to detect these kinds of pretences.

Ms B Blaai (COPE) asked about the criteria which the Parole Board uses to reach a conclusion that the prisoner is terminally ill and should be released.

Mr Selfe also asked Mr Tshabangu specifically about the medical parole given to Mr Schabir Shaik, and whether the Durban Parole Board was satisfied that Mr Shaik, who had recently been reported as driving around on his own, was deserving of the medical parole granted to him. Mr Selfe also wanted to know what parole conditions were given to Mr Shaik, and whether or not he was abiding by those conditions. 
Mr Tshabangu said the parole boards relied on the doctor’s recommendations that a prisoner was terminally ill. He said once the doctors were satisfied that a prisoner had reached the final stages of the illness, they had very little powers to deny medical parole and in the case of Mr Shaik, the medical reports did say that he had reached the last stages of his terminal illness. There was a further investigation conducted by the Health Professions Association, which found that there was nothing untoward with the conduct of the doctors who examined Mr Shaik.

Responding to the question on parole conditions, Mr Tshabangu said once a prisoner had been granted medical parole or parole in general, the issue of setting parole conditions and enforcing them fell on another department and not the Parole Board, hence he could not answer the question about Mr Shaik’s parole conditions.

Ms Blaai asked how long the Parole Board contracts were supposed to be.

Ms Dichabe said Parole Board Chairpersons were supposed to be appointed on a five-year contract and the law was clear on that, but there was lack of clarity as to the fate of Vice chairpersons, some of whom were given three year or four year contracts.

Mr Z Madasa (ANC) said he was getting an impression that  there was a serious problem with the procedures and protocols regarding parole. He said it was clear to him that under the current system many people who should have been released on parole were still languishing in jail, and the opposite was also true. If his instincts were correct, then there was a need to overhaul the entire parole system.

Mr Madasa said he was worried that if the parole boards sat whilst they were not properly constituted, then this surely compromised the validity of the decisions they took.

An official from a Board answered that although composition was sometimes problematic, the parole Board would only meet when it had all members with voting rights present.

Mr Madasa asked the parole board chairpersons what extent of independence they were seeking, and who they wished to be independent of. He noted that while independence was an important concept, it was important still to remember that their activities fell under the entire criminal justice system so that coordination of some kind was needed.

Mr A Fritz (DA) said the law was very clear that 52 parole boards needed to be established throughout the country. He felt that the problem lay with the management of establishment of these structures. He said it was depressing to hear incidents of failure to reach a quorum, lack of resources such as motor car allocations, vacant positions, and remuneration issues. He believed that the blame lay squarely at the door of the DCS for failure to manage the structures.

Mr Fritz specifically asked the Boksburg Chairperson to give clarity as to the nature of interference this Board was experiencing. He wanted to know whether this was interference in the decisions that had to be made on whether or not parole should be granted, or whether it was interference at an administrative level such as in the allocation of resources.

Mr Mookisi said that last year, after various concerns were raised, the Regional Commissioner (Gauteng) established a technical committee to look at some of the issues affecting the Board, and that committee’s report identified interference as one of the concerns not only at Boksburg but in the entire region. The nature of this interference took many forms. For instance, when dealing with high profile cases, officials from DCS wanted to monitor every step in the process and would go as far as influencing Parole Board members on how to handle the matter. The other form of interference came in the form of oversight visits to hospitals where offenders being considered for medical parole were held. Often, when the Board wanted to make these visits, the DCS would insist on escorting the Board. The other concern came with monitoring and supervising of parole boards, as the Area Commissioner would delegate the supervision to someone else who did not have that mandate.

Ms W Ngwenya (ANC) noted that all presenters were facing similar challenges, including their structures not being in place, and shortage of personnel to serve on the Board, particularly community members. She asked how the Parole Board advertised itself to the community. She was concerned that victim involvement was not effective and emphasised the need to have professionally trained counsellors to help victims come to terms with their perpetrators.

Mr S Abram (ANC) noted that the numbers of social workers and psychologists were far short of what could reasonably be deemed acceptable. He wanted to know what exactly the cause of this shortage of trained professionals was, whether it had to do with salaries, scarcity of skills or willingness to work within the Department, and also enquired what the response of the Department had been when these issues were raised.

Mr Abram said it was unbelievable that doctors would behave in the manner described. They were not being asked to put their heads on the line, but merely to give their professional opinion as to what they thought was the condition and estimated life expectancy of the inmates, based on what they could observe at that particular point in time.

Ms Mokhobo said the Department was trying to respond to a large extent, especially in the recruitment of skilled professionals. but often these efforts were thwarted by people not willing to stay long, either because of poor salaries or stressful working conditions resulting from heavy workload.

Ms M Mdaka (ANC) said she had a number of concerns stemming out of the presentations, but that these really needed to be answered by officials from the DCS. She was also concerned about the composition of the parole boards, specifically why two instead of one officials were deployed by the DCS. Ms Mdaka also asked how many parole boards were present at Pollsmoor and in the Western Cape in general.

Mr Mkhontwana said Pollsmoor had two parole boards, one being a roving Parole Board that covers facilities such as Goodwood as well. There were ten parole boards in the Western Cape.

Ms M Phaliso (ANC) asked a question regarding documents SAP69 and SAP62, saying she wanted to know who was responsible for providing them. She went further to say she was convinced that some of these challenges facing the parole boards were a cause for overcrowding in prisons.

Mr Tshabangu said in Durban there was a court liaison official working with the Board, who was also in contact with SAPS, to ensure that the Board could get the sentence remarks and crime description documents. However, this all this depended on that official having a good working relationship with officials within DOJ and SAPS who were responsible for handling those documents.

Ms M Nyanda (ANC) also expressed her concern that officials from DCS should have been present to address some of the questions. She asked why there was lack of parity with salaries and treatment in general of parole boards or its officials. She also asked what would happen to those offenders who qualify to be released on parole but receive no support from family members.

Ms Dichabe said the DCS refused to address any queries with regard to salaries, saying their salaries are regulated by the Department of Public Service and Administration. She reiterated that some, but not all chairpersons had received a thirteenth cheque.

The Chairperson noted that the issue of lack of uniformity with regard to salaries was a reality, and the Committee would need to engage whoever was responsible at DCS.

The Chairperson asked each Chairperson of the Board to e-mail the Committee with specific statistics of the cases that they had dealt with, to give the Committee an indication of the work that had been done.

The meeting was adjourned. 

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