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CORRECTIONAL SERVICES PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE : Mr D Bloem (ANC)
24 May 2006
JUDICIAL INSPECTORATE OF PRISONS ANNUAL REPORT 2005/2006: BRIEFING
Documents handed out:
Annual Report 2005/2006: Prisoners and Prisons (available at
CORRECTIONAL SERVICES PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
: Mr D Bloem (ANC)
The Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons briefed the Committee on its annual report for 2005/2006. Overcrowding and the high number of deaths in prisons due to natural causes featured strongly in the report. Members raised concerns around the Independent Prison Visitors’ contracts, the release of terminally ill prisoners, the effectiveness of the Legal Aid Board and impact of minimum sentencing legislation on overcrowding.
Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons (JIOP) presentation
Mr Gideon Morris (National Manager) presented the Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons (JIOP) annual report to the Committee. He briefed the Committee on the activities of the Independent Prison Visitors (IPVs), the composition of the prison population as well as the state of the prisons. The conditions of prisons and the continuing problem of overcrowding featured strongly in the report. The report also featured the JIOPs’ recommendations for dealing with overcrowding.
The Chairperson said that he was pleased with the work the JIOP was doing as well as with the visits made to prisons and the work of the IPV.
Mr N Fihla (ANC) requested elaboration in the claim that the high number of awaiting trial detainees was no longer a contributing factor to the overcrowding of prisons but that much of the overcrowding could now be ascribed to the high number of people serving longer sentences. This would indicate that minimum sentencing was a main contributor to overcrowding and yet there were 15 000 people who were in prison simply because they could not afford to pay their bail or fine amounts. He wondered whether Prof Van Zyl Smit’s assessment, that overcrowding was caused by people serving sentences that were too long was not too simplistic.
Ms L Chikunga (ANC) felt that it was unacceptable that inmates suffering from communicable diseases were allowed to share beds. This posed a health hazard and an urgent intervention was needed. She agreed that Prof Van Zyl Smit’s definition of the reasons that caused overcrowding was oversimplified. As far as she was concerned overcrowding was the unintended effect of the legislation. One needed to determine what was at the root of the problem.
Ms Chikunga asked what impact the fact that unsentenced prisoners often spent a week in jail before their bail hearings had on the conditions in prisons.
Mr Morris explained that up until 2000 the large number of awaiting trial detainees fuelled the increase in prisoner numbers. Although the number of unsentenced prisoners was dropping, the length of sentences prevented overall prisoner numbers from decreasing.
Dr Palmer (National Manager: Legal Services) explained that a person had to appear before the court within 24 hours of his or her arrest. Depending on the nature of the offence bail was normally set after the first appearance. Some prisoners remained unsentenced for up to seven years. Courts setting unrealistically high bail amounts was one of the reasons why a person might not be released after bail was set. He said that a re-examination of this matter was necessary. The number of unsentenced prisoners would be greatly decreased if offenders who had not committed serious offences could be released on warning.
Dr Palmer said that a bail hearing was different from a trial. In a trial the state had to prove that a person was guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt) of the crime he or she stood accused of. In a bail hearing it was up to the accused to prove that he or she was not a danger and did not pose a flight risk. It was more difficult for an accused to get bail than to be acquitted. Many people confuse bail with a fine for an offence. This was why the public generally expected high bail amounts to be set and magistrates often comply. He said that many offenders did not have fixed addresses and could not be released. This number was not so high.
Ms Chikunga wondered why magistrates and judges were not making use of the provision that made allowance for them to impose shorter sentences unless there were substantial and compelling reasons for imposing longer ones.
Dr Palmer said that many people received long prison sentences because legislation stated that if there were no substantial and compelling reasons minimum sentences must be imposed. He explained that when this legislation was passed judges had different views as to what was meant by ‘substantial’ and ‘compelling’. They viewed the legislation in a very restricted and conservative light and believed that a person could only get a minimum sentence in absolutely exceptional circumstances. Early in 2000 it was decided that if an injustice would occur minimum sentencing legislation did not apply. This should limit the impact of the minimum sentencing.
Mr S Mahote (ANC) commented that alternative sentencing and parole should not be a Department of Correctional Services (DCS) issue only but should be a matter of concern to the entire justice cluster.
Mr A Fritz (National Manager: Inspections) said that a mind shift in the approach to overcrowding was needed. The downward trend in the number of awaiting trial detainees was due to creative ways of approaching the problem. Section 62(f) of the Criminal Procedure Act should be used. He reported that the Western Cape provincial cluster and all stakeholders were looking at creative ways of dealing with the problem in that region. He urged the Committee to encourage the cluster to make use of the instruments provided by the legislation.
The Chairperson was concerned about the small number of medical releases. The family of an HIV positive inmate at a Free State prison had called him to ask whether he could assist them to facilitate the release of their seriously ill son. The Provincial Commissioner informed him that the inmate was not seriously ill and did not qualify for release. Two weeks later the family made the same request and was met with the same response. Two days after their last request they informed him that the inmate had passed away. He had received a letter from the Provincial Commissioner offering his apologies. Three months ago the same thing happened at Groenpunt prison. The Correctional Services Act stated that terminally ill prisoners could be released yet this did not happen often and the process was long. He asked what the Committee could do to assist in speeding up medical releases.
Mr Morris said that the annual report indicated that the number of natural deaths in prison had escalated. He said that a death in prison should be the exception but appeared to be the norm. The number of medical releases had basically stayed the same over the past 10 to 12 years. The community should call the DCS to account for every death that resulted from disease. The often-repeated excuse that inmates who were terminally ill died in prison because their families refused to take over their care was wrong. There were many hospices and other places of care that would take these inmates so that they could die a dignified death. He said that only those people who could afford to go to court to force the Department to release them succeeded in getting released. He urged the Committee to call on the Department to explain why their number of medical releases remained low.
Dr Palmer said that about four people per month died as a result of violence, while about 130 people died every month due to disease. He emphasised that death should occur in a dignified manner.
The Chairperson assured the JIOP that natural deaths would be put on the Committee’s agenda. He was upset about the situation especially since there were many ways in which the situation could be managed.
Ms W Ngwenya (ANC) said that much of DCS’ money went towards caring for awaiting trial detainees when they were in fact not the Department’s responsibility. She asked how this situation could be managed.
Mr Morris replied that while he could understand this debate, he felt that DCS was a specialist at "keeping people". The Departments of Justice and Safety and Security could be forced to take over the detention of awaiting trial detainees but would probably not do as good a job as the correctional officers who had been trained for the task. These sectors also did not have the appropriate infrastructure to care for unsentenced prisoners. The judiciary and the SA Police Services (SAPS) could certainly work on dealing with cases faster. He reminded the Committee that should the DCS no longer be responsible for the awaiting trial detainees, the JIOP would have no authority to monitor their detention. He agreed that the situation might be easier to manage but feared that unsentenced prisoners would be placed in a system that was not equipped to care for them.
Ms Chikunga was concerned about the cost effectiveness of employing IPVs on three-year contracts after which new people would have to be trained. She wondered what became of IPVs after their contracts expired. She doubted whether an institution could be successfully run if it was constantly recruiting new people.
The Chairperson added that the Committee would respond to the JIOPs’ invitation to make recommendations as far as the IPVs were concerned. He felt strongly that their experience would be valuable.
Mr Morris said that prisoners were concerned about the IPVs becoming institutionalised and thus seen as part of the correctional facility. The JIOP had to balance preventing IPVs from becoming institutionalised and making sure that IPVs were empowered. Many IPVs were community workers and were trained in various skills that they could take back to their organisations once their contracts expired. Some were attorneys and some worked at non-governmental organisations. Many had careers and were IPVs in their spare time. The JIOP thought it very important to maintain its independence and to do this it was important that IPVs did not become institutionalised. Every time new IPVs were taken on board, a new generation of IPVs with new skills added value to the JIOP. He said that the Inspectorate would appreciate the Committee’s guidance on how it could better manage the IPV contracts.
Ms M Makgate (ANC) said that the IPVs from her region had had many concerns regarding difficulties around communicating with the head office of the JIOP. They felt that there were many issues that could have been easily resolved had there been better communication. They were also very concerned about the fact that they received no feedback from head office and thus did not know what progress had been made.
Ms Chikunga was curious about the JIOPs’ opinion on Legal Aid Board (LAB) performance.
Mr Shaku (National Coordinator: IPVs) explained that IPVs had a good idea of prison conditions. They were of the opinion that the LAB could not reach all the inmates that needed legal representation. This had been a problem ever since he joined the Inspectorate. The JIOP could only facilitate a certain number of activities. Some problems related to there not being enough services that could ensure that cases could continue –sometimes an inmate’s application for legal representation was approved, but then the legal representative failed to appear on the date of the court appearance. This contributed to the numerous postponements that clogged the system. The board also needed to be more accessible to its clients.
The JIOP had been liasing with the LAB since 2004 in an attempt to find a solution to this problem. The JIOP and the Board would embark on a joint project whereby IPVs would be appointed to work specifically with complaints related to the LAB and lack of access to legal representation. IPVs were the intermediaries between inmates and officials. In this case the IPVs would be the intermediaries between those inmates that need representation and the justice centre. The initiative was piloted in Pollsmoor Prison in 2005 and a workshop would be held the following work with 16 IPVs that would be deployed nationally.
Mr Morris added that Mr Shaku was driving the project. The JIOP entered into a partnership with the Legal Aid Board who would train former IPVs to work as contact persons at prisons that hold unsentenced prisoners. There would thus be a direct link between the justice centre and prisons.
Mr L Tolo (ANC) said that reducing the number of years a prisoner who has been sentenced to life has to serve before he or she could apply for parole might prove to be a problem. The JIOP should be cognisant of the impact these crimes had on the victims. He predicted that there would also be a public outcry.
Ms Makgate added that it was important to reach a balance between the rights of the offender and those of their victims.
Mr Morris emphasised that the JIOP was not requesting a soft approach but felt that the nature of crimes should be considered. He pointed out that C-Max was only 36% populated; this proved that not all long sentences were imposed on people who had committed violent crimes. He felt that courts should consider the merits of a case before imposing sentences. Long sentences reduced the opportunity for rehabilitation to almost zero.
Mr Fihla felt that the minimum sentencing legislation was the best deterrent available to South Africa. Many people were in prison because they could not afford to pay the amounts set for bail or fines. This also contributed to overcrowding.
Dr Palmer pointed out that minimum sentences did not function as a deterrent. People were deterred by the possibility of getting caught.
Mr Shaku said that the Western Cape Province would be selecting IPVs soon and had invited nominations.
The Chairperson thanked the delegation for their report. He was pleased that the JIOP always presented an annual report that could serve as an agenda for the Committee. The Committee would follow up on issues related to the IPVs, minimum sentencing and the management of awaiting trial detainees.
The rest of the meeting was closed to the public.
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