Number of deaths in prisons continues to decline

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cape Town - The number of inmates that die in prison continues to decline, according to the annual report by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services.

This as the number of female inmates and children in custody declined last year.

According to figures the report drew from the Department of Correctional Service's Management Information System (MIS), the number of inmates that died in prison fell to 1 048 last year, from 1 136 in 2007.

The discrepancy became evident shortly before the writing of the report and would be subject to further investigation, the inspectorate said.

In recent years, the number of natural deaths had fallen from a high of 1 689 in 2004 to 982 last year, while the number of unnatural deaths had declined from 80 in 2007 to 66 last year.

The Judicial inspectorate had this year restarted the Legal Services Unit in an intensified effort to establish and investigate the circumstances under which unnatural deaths have occurred.

According to the department the majority of unnatural deaths recorded last year were from suicides and assaults.

The inspectorate has also raised concern about the alleged assault of inmates by departmental officials.

On June 11, three correctional services officials were convicted by the high court on charges of murder for their involvement in the deaths of three inmates at the Krugersdorp Correctional Centre in April 2007. The officials were each sentenced to 20 years in jail.

The number of children incarcerated has come down from over 3 000 in 2007 to 1 663 children last year, said the inspectorate's Inspecting Judge Deon van Zyl.

The number of female inmates had also declined - to 3 656 last year from 4 267 in 2002.
Van Zyl pointed out that the percentage of women out of the total prison population was lower in South Africa than a number of other African countries.

According to the report, the percentage of women in custody at 2.2% of all inmates, is lower than that of Canada (9%), Australia (7%) and the US (7%). There are 1 663 children in custody.

South Africa has 237 active prisons with a total prison population of 165 230 on 31 March. The approved capacity of correctional facilities was exceeded by 50 408 inmates - an overcrowding level of 44%.

According to the report, the problem of overcrowding is not unique to South Africa, most countries, including the US and UK are experiencing "high levels" of prison overcrowding.
Added to this, prisons have been experiencing overcrowding in South Africa since 1965, the report says.

The growth in overcrowding took of in 1998 with the increase of the awaiting trial prison population running at 20% per annum.

Overcrowding has also been compounded by the increase in the number of inmates serving life sentences - from 793 in 1998 to 8 911 on 31 March this year, according to the report.

The Inspectorate's Inspecting Judge Deon van Zyl said: "the overcrowding is definitely being relieved - if you look at the figures we have today they are much better than they were last year."

He said his office was busy persuading attorneys and advocates and magistrates and prosecutors to avail themselves to plea bargaining processes under 105a in terms of the criminal procedure bargaining - under a non-incarcerable sentence - correctional service.

"Just those discussions at this stage are very important. Maybe you don't see the figures yet, but I promise you we are going to achieve that."

The report also suggests that the current space allowance per inmate be reconsidered and steps be taken to involve inmates in work, schooling and rehabilitation programmes, thereby minimising the time they have to remain incarcerated in their cells and lessening the effects of overcrowding.

The report says the space norms, which were determined during the early 1980s, when prisoners were affectively locked up 23 hours a day in cells. With the focus on prisons moving to rehabilitation detainees are spending less time in lock-up cells and more time in programmes geared at their effective reintegration into society.

Currently the space norm is set at 3.5mý per inmate. Should this be changed to 3mý per inmate, a further 19 137 beds could be accommodated in prisons.

The report suggest that the R8.2 billion earmarked to build new prisons might then be better spent on rehabilitation facilities such as workshops, classrooms, farms and gardens.

van Zyl also said South Africa had a far more transparent process for reviewing prison complaints than elsewhere in Africa.

"The one thing about the situation in South Africa is that you have those statistics. Correctional services is open about what's happening. And we are assisting in the opening up of the process.

"I've been in other countries where I've asked to visit a prison and been told that the only way you'll get into that prison is if you commit a crime."

Deputy Minister of Correctional Services Hlengiwe Mkhize said: "South Africa is still featuring in an unpleasant way, our numbers are still too high, which basically tells us that we need to work a little bit harder to help our people to come out different from our correctional centres."