Parole backlog crisis looms

2016-10-23 06:00
Picture: Mlandeli Puzi

Picture: Mlandeli Puzi

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Human rights lawyers have threatened legal action against the Department of Correctional Services in a bid to force it to process outstanding parole applications of long-term prisoners whose rights they claim are being violated by the delays.

The move comes after Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha failed to deliver on his promise to address the backlog. Several organisations, including Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative and the National Institute for Crime and the Rehabilitation of Offenders, made presentations to Parliament’s justice and corrections portfolio committee last month, calling for an urgent response to resolve delayed parole applications and reform the daunting parole processes.

Clare Ballard, head of LHR’s penal reform programme, told City Press this week that the organisations were preparing to serve court papers on behalf of several hundred clients after the department failed to process prisoners’ applications.

They also want changes to the way the case management system worked. She said there had been a 3 000% increase in the number of inmates serving life sentences over the past 20 years owing to the introduction of a minimum sentencing procedure, causing a massive backlog in the number of applications for parole being processed by case management committees and the National Council of Correctional Services.

The Correctional Supervision and Parole Board is more efficient, with backlogs only taking place when there are applications for a presidential remission.

“There has been a massive increase in the number of inmates serving life sentences and they are experiencing the worst delays because they are subjected to a more tedious parole process than other inmates [convicted of lesser serious crimes].

“More and more people are being sentenced to life because of the mandatory sentencing system.”

Ballard said they had taken on groups of inmates from five or six prisons around the country who were in similar situations in joint cases, which were now going back to court.

“There has been no real engagement and they haven’t met our demands. When we threaten litigation, they say we will give you outcomes for the guys who are at council level, then they drag their feet again,” she said.

Manelisi Wolela, a prison spokesperson, said in terms of the Correctional Services Act, with effect from October 2004, any offender sentenced to life has to serve a mandatory minimum incarceration period of 25 years, after which he or she could be placed on parole, subject to his or her conduct while serving the term.

“Parole placement is a privilege given to prisoners that demonstrated, while in custody, good behaviour, which includes participation in various programmes that include education and training, where needed.

This is aimed at correcting offending behaviour and [facilitating] victim-offender mediation and dialogue.”

Ignoring departmental interventions by an offender could prolong the minimum incarceration period, and some offenders end up completing their full sentences in custody, he said.

Parole boards fighting to be paid

Meanwhile, the multimillion-rand court battle between the department of correctional services and the country’s parole boards has taken a dramatic turn, with at least 35 boards in five provinces preparing a new court bid to force prison services to pay allowances legislated for in 2007.

On Wednesday, the Labour Court in Cape Town granted an application by the state attorney, on behalf of correctional services, to consolidate an application by the Western Cape parole board chairperson and 14 others to force the department to pay members 37% of their monthly salary as an allowance for acting as board chairperson and vice-chairperson, with a similar application in the Johannesburg Labour Court by Gauteng chairperson Solomon Lekgetho.

The court stood the case down until November 24 and set timelines for the applicants to prepare their paperwork and for the state attorney to explain the delay of more than a year in doing so.

However, the board chairpersons from Gauteng, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and North West are preparing a separate action.

Vincent Jones, parole board chairperson for the Johannesburg management area, confirmed that he and 34 other chairpersons were lodging a joint unfair labour practice application.

“We will not be consolidating. Our legal team is finalising the list of names for the application, which currently stands at 35, and is finalising our papers,” he said.

Another five separate unfair labour practice applications, mainly from the Eastern Cape, brought to the Public Service Bargaining Council, are also likely to be consolidated, according to lawyers involved in the process, in a bid to streamline the process that has been dragging on since 2011.

A succession of correctional services ministers has failed to resolve the impasse despite a precedence involving the case of two former chairpersons from the Eastern Cape and Gauteng being paid out the allowances in terms of their two separate labour court rulings last year.

One was paid in excess of R1 million.


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Read more on:    michael masutha  |  human rights  |  prisons

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