Court victory for Pollsmoor's awaiting-trial prisoners

2016-12-06 10:41
Prisoners in Pollsmoor (File, Netwerk24)

Prisoners in Pollsmoor (File, Netwerk24)

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Cape Town – Rampant overcrowding and “horrendous” conditions at the remand centre for awaiting-trial detainees at Pollsmoor prison have to be addressed, the Western Cape High Court ordered on Monday, GroundUp reports.

The government has failed to provide the inmates of Pollsmoor’s remand detention facility with exercise, nutrition, accommodation, ablution facilities and health care services of a standard that complies with the Correctional Services Act. Such failure is inconsistent with the Constitution, the court order states.

The application was brought by Sonke Gender Justice, represented by Lawyers for Human Rights. The respondents were the government and the head of the remand facility.

Judge Vincent Saldanha gave government two weeks to show why it cannot immediately reduce the number of detainees at the facility to not more than 120% of the approved number.

Government had to develop a comprehensive plan, with timeframes, to address the deficiencies at the facility. It had to be submitted to the court by the end of January. In addition, it had to file a report explaining what had been done to end the unlawful conditions.

At the same time, the head of the remand facility, Cecil Jacobs, had to submit all the cell inspection reports from 2012 to date.

Both respondents had to pay the costs of the application. National government never opposed the application.

However, Jacobs asked for the application to be dismissed. He described changes that had taken place at the facility after the publication of a damning report by Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron on the conditions there.

However, Geoff Budlender, for Lawyers for Human Rights, said that despite many meetings, there was no evidence of an improvement in, or an end to, the unlawful conditions.

Saldanha delivered a scathing rebuke of Pollsmoor’s remand facility and its approach to the case.

“How do human beings live in a detention facility while there are rats?” Saldanha asked Joey Moses, for Jacobs.

Last year, thousands of detainees had to be evacuated from the prison following a rat infestation that led to two deaths. Saldanha asked if the department could guarantee that another rat infestation would not break out, resulting in another death. Moses said he could not give such a guarantee.

“The most important issue is that there is simply not enough space at Pollsmoor,” said Saldanha. Detainees needed to be moved to other facilities or another prison needed to be built. The possibility of moving detainees to police stations was also raised.

Saldanha described the application as “one of the most serious injunctions” made against the minister of correctional services since 1994. Saldanha said problems at Pollsmoor possibly pre-dated 2003.

He questioned whether the side-lining of the improvement of conditions was due to the fact that detainees were suspected of committing crimes and therefore not seen as a priority.

This attitude was mirrored in court papers Jacobs submitted, in which he pointed to the fact that some of the witnesses were self-confessed gang members facing serious offences.

Saldanha asked Moses what this had to do with the allegations. In response, Moses mentioned the detainees’ complaints register.

“What witnesses have to say – you fob them off and say to the court, ‘Don’t believe them, they are awaiting-trial gang members with serious offences,” responded Saldanha.

'Filthy cells, blocked drains'

He said Jacobs then asked for Cameron’s reports on the conditions in the prison to be ruled “inadmissible hearsay”.

Reading sections from Cameron’s report, Budlender spoke of the “horrendous” and “appalling” conditions that detainees experienced – from filthy cells, untreated sores and wounds, to blocked drains and no hot water.

A seemingly ill-prepared Moses stumbled over his responses to Saldanha’s persistent questions. He completely abandoned a number of points that he had originally wanted to raise, including a six-month postponement.

Saldanha said Moses’s way of litigating was “unacceptable”.

Outside the court, Sonke Gender Justice members wore orange outfits reminiscent of prison overalls, and held posters with images of conditions in the prison.

Sonke trainer Mzamo Sidela described the court action as “a last resort”. He said it was “long overdue” for a judge to give a mandate on the issue.

Former inmate Thandisizwe Mashwau told GroundUp that when he was in Pollsmoor there were more than 40 inmates in one cell and that people slept in the showers.

Read more on:    correctional services  |  cape town  |  prisons

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