Medical parole

2008-08-14 00:00

The question of medical parole or release from prison on compassionate grounds has come to the fore because of the current illness of Schabir Shaik who seems to have spent more time in hospital than in a prison cell since he was given a 15-year sentence for fraud and corruption. As Jacob Zuma’s wealthy financial adviser, Shaik has a high profile which his family continues to exploit. His brothers, Yunus and Mo, are claiming that he is “extremely ill” with hypertension in Durban’s Chief Albert Luthuli Hospital and have appealed for his release into correctional supervision at home.

One observation would be to ask whether hospital is not a more sensible place for someone so seriously ill rather than his home. Apart from this, there are other important considerations to take into account. Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour has appropriately stated that medical parole is a matter of policy affecting all prisoners and not about one offender. He has boldly implied that the government cannot allow itself to be influenced or pressurised by a high profile case where there are particular political connections. Balfour has also warned that great care needs to be taken in framing and implementing such a policy, bearing in mind that sickness could be used as a ploy to bypass the carrying out of a sentence. Medical prognoses can sometimes differ among doctors. What if a prisoner is released because of serious illness and then gets better? Does that prisoner then have to return to prison?

The case for parole on medical grounds is most clear where the chance of recovery is clearly nil. The current debate evokes the memory of Bram Fischer during the apartheid era, sentenced to life imprisonment for treason and denied release until the 11th hour when he was without doubt dying of cancer. Fischer, although tried and sentenced in a court of law, was essentially a prisoner of conscience. The cruelty he and his family suffered was severe. If anyone deserved an act of compassion more timeously from the authorities of the day, it was Fischer.

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