'Worrying trends' in prison deaths

2010-11-18 20:14

Cape Town - A number of "extremely worrying trends" have been found during an investigation into 55 unnatural deaths in prisons in the past year.

The Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative said one of the "top concerns" was that not one correctional services official had been prosecuted in any of the unnatural death cases.

This was despite disciplinary enquiries finding them guilty of offences such as gross negligence and excessive use of force.

"Of topmost concern is that in not one of the 55 cases has a single Department of Correctional Services (DCS) official been prosecuted yet," the Initiative said.

"It is rare that officials are dismissed following the death of a prisoner."

The CSPRI - a project of the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape - said it had analysed a report by the Judicial Inspectorate which provided details of 55 "unnatural deaths" in 2009.

"The CSPRI has analysed the data, discovering a number of extremely worrying trends."

It said in many of the cases, the deceased had been brutally assaulted by officials with batons, electric shields and booted feet. The official had then failed to provide "adequate and timeous" medical attention.

Nothing more than murder

In one case, involving the death of a 59-year old prisoner at Ebongweni Maximum Security Prison in Kokstad, an independent pathologist had found "death consistent with smothering" or an obstruction of mouth and nose.

"The incident happened on August 9 2009 and according to the inspectorate, no action has been taken by the DCS nor has the investigation by the police resulted in anything," the CSPRI said.

The prisoner, known only by his initials 'RT'", must have died a horrible death - first severely beaten and then suffocated.

"This is nothing more than murder and all officials implicated should be prosecuted and punished accordingly."

Other trends apparent from the 2009 Judicial Report indicated that 55% of the deaths were suicides. In a significant proportion of these, the prisoner was a known as a suicide risk.

Despite this, "The DCS failed to take effective measures to prevent the suicide," the CSPRI said.

"In nearly 65% of the 55 cases, the DCS had not taken any action against its officials although there is evidence indicating liability."

Investigations by the police in the deaths of prisoners seldom progressed to a stage where a docket was handed to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

"The CSPRI is of the view that when a person dies in state custody, the state is liable until the matter has been properly investigated by independent and competent authorities and the findings indicate the contrary.

"In meeting its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture, South Africa is obligated to investigate promptly wherever there are reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture or ill treatment has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction."

Poor, delayed and uncompleted investigations fostered a culture of impunity within the DCS, the CSPRI said.