Cape Town - Detainees kept in jail while they wait to go on trial or to be sentenced are a big contributing factor to overcrowding at Pollsmoor prison, which is nearly 300% above capacity, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha said on Friday.
“There isn’t an appropriate legal status applicable to them; their sojourn [in prison] could be a day, month, a year, even five years as appeals go on. In the interim we have a situation of unpredictability that contributes to the difficulty of managing the situation effectively," he told News24.
Masutha pointed out that the finalisation of these cases was the court’s responsibility and therefore something correctional services had no control over.
He spoke to News24 on Friday after the Western Cape High Court earlier this week ruled that the prison population at Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility be reduced to 150% of its accommodation capacity within the next six months.
“The court recognises the reality [of prison overcrowding] that cannot overnight be overcome,” Masutha said.
“There are issues of practicality.”
Earlier this month the Western Cape High Court ruled that rampant overcrowding and “horrendous” conditions at the remand centre for awaiting-trial detainees at Pollsmoor had to be addressed and 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
The case around Pollsmoor overcrowding was brought before the court by the NGO Sonke Gender Justice.
200% above capacity
On Friday Masutha welcomed this week's court order, but outlined some of the problems – that extended beyond his department’s scope – when it came to prison overcrowding.
“This is a multi-stakeholder problem,” he said.
Masutha said current levels of overcrowding were between 200 and 300% above capacity.
“Of course we agree that this creates the untenable circumstances whereby we are not able to provide the inmates with the appropriate care and support they deserve.”
He said that his department would look to reduce the Pollsmoor prison population by seeing if some inmates could be moved to various other facilities in the Western Cape, as well as possibly other provinces.
He also said that it would try to ensure that the release of criminals who qualified for parole – or who were under correctional supervision – not be delayed because of administrative lags.
Particular socio-economic circumstances in areas of the Western Cape, such as congestion in the townships and the Cape Flats, fuelled the serious crime rate and resulted in the problems at Pollsmoor.
Yet, facilities in all major cities such as Johannesburg and Durban were “overcrowded to the brink,” said Masutha.
Nevertheless, the solution to this could not be to move remand prisoners to other more outlying areas.
“They still have to navigate the courts… You can’t take them too far from where they will stand trial.”
Furthermore, witnesses could not be inconvenienced by having to testify out of their locales.
“It’s a conundrum,” Masutha said.
He said that theoretically, without remand prisoners, the correctional facilities would not be overcrowded.
Of the approximately 160 000 prisoners in South Africa, 40 000 were on remand.
"Our system has the capacity to take 120 000… [This is why] you then have the congestion.”
Masutha said the situation was exacerbated by a previous change in legal policy whereby arrested people could not stay under incarceration in police cells for more than seven days.
Due to a lack of amenities at police cells suitable for longer stays, these people, if not granted bail, would be moved to correctional facilities.
“That is where the problem started,” said the minister.
He said that the department had been trying different methods to reduce populations and over the past decade had brought the number of remand prisoners in their facilities down from 60 000 to 40 000.
Cost a key factor
Furthermore, while there was legal recourse for a facility to refuse to take in more prisoners if they were already full, this was not viable in reality: “We can’t refuse [to take in] people, who are dangerous, from society.”
Cost was also a key factor. “Due to financial constraints… we are doing the best that we can,” said Masutha.
For example, explained the minister, when in September 2015 prisoners at Pollsmoor had to be moved to other facilities after a disease epidemic broke out due to a rat infestation, the temporary relocations had cost R9m.
Staff also had to be moved alongside the prisoners and accommodated.
Meanwhile, in a statement issued on Friday, Masutha urged South Africans to obey the law during holiday times.
“The festive season is generally a period during which such [criminal] activity is known to escalate.”
He reminded South Africans, that even seemingly minor criminal offences could carry a record for a decade before an application for their expungement could be made.
“Crime does not pay,” asserted Masutha.