Court: Inmates must get proper healthcare

2012-12-11 22:32
(Picture: AP)

(Picture: AP)

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Johannesburg - Prison authorities have a duty to minimise disease transmission, the Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday.

The court ruled that Dudley Lee be granted leave to appeal a decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), which had overturned a finding by the Western Cape High Court in his favour.

Lee claimed that poor prison health management resulted in his tuberculosis (TB) infection, while he was remanded in Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town, between 1994 and 2004.

“The matter is of importance, not only to the parties, but also to other inmates and the health sector generally. It is thus in the interests of justice that leave to appeal should be granted,” said Judge Bess Nkabinde in her majority judgment.

“It is indeed so that prisoners are amongst the most vulnerable in our society to the failure of the state to meet its constitutional and statutory obligations,” she said.

Nkabinde found TB control at Pollsmoor depended on effective screning of inmates, isolation of infectious prisoners, and proper medical care. This had not been implemented.

The SCA had found that while the state was negligent, Lee could not prove this negligence had caused his infection - a test Nkabinde said was too rigid.

Judge Edwin Cameron, in a minority judgment, found that because TB could not always be immediately diagnosed in a large prison, prisoners would always face some risk of contagion.

Lee "seeks development of the common law affecting a vulnerable group to whom our system of constitutional protections owes particular solicitude," he said.

The country itself had an interest in developing a prison system in which disease was minimised, he said.

Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele said the judgment had been noted.

“The department of correctional services has noted the court ruling and is studying the judgment, which highlights the fundamental issue of overcrowding in correctional centres in South Africa," he said.

Of the approximately 150 000 inmates in South Africa, more than 44 000 - or 30% - were remand detainess.

A national colloquium had been held last month to discuss prison overcrowding. A report on this issue was expected early next year.

"We are working hard towards action, and improvements, in our correctional system," he said.

"In 2013, we are continuing discussions with the judiciary, and other stakeholders, towards finding solutions to South Africa's high rate of incarceration and breaking the cycle of crime."

Advocacy groups Wits Justice Project, the Treatment Action Campaign, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, who had been admitted as amici curiae represented by Section 27, hailed the outcome.

"This is a landmark case that highlights the state's responsibility for ensuring that the constitutional rights of detainees are mandated and safeguarded,” they said.

"In the absence of adherence to known protocols and procedures, TB and HIV will continue to spread through our prisons and to the rest of society.

"The need for properly ventilated cells needs to be enforced, as does the need to find solutions to the chronic overcrowding in our prisons."

The judgment was a major step forward for campaigns to ensure prisoners' rights to healthcare and dignity were respected, including through adequate measures to prevent and treat TB.

They called on the department to take immediate steps to remedy the “horrendous” conditions to which prisoners and awaiting trial detainees were subjected.

“This is a matter of the utmost importance for human rights and public health.”

Read more on:    sibusiso ndebele  |  prisons  |  health

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