Showdown over Pollsmoor’s 'appalling' conditions

2016-12-01 08:07
Pollsmoor Prison (Picture: Supplied)

Pollsmoor Prison (Picture: Supplied)

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Cape Town – Government and the head of Pollsmoor’s remand facility are being taken to court on Monday in an attempt to compel to them to address the “appalling” conditions at the centre.

Sonke Gender Justice, represented by Lawyers for Human Rights in the Western Cape High Court, believes detainees are “routinely, and on a continuing basis, deprived of basic amenities to which they are entitled to by law”.

These include exercise, nutrition, accommodation, ablution facilities, and healthcare services that are guaranteed by law.

The remand centre is for awaiting-trial prisoners. These are people who have either not been convicted or sentenced. Some will not be found guilty of any crime.

In their court papers, Sonke’s lawyers state that such a failure is inconsistent with the Constitution.   

According to the law, detainees must be kept under “conditions of human dignity”.

They must get an “adequate diet to promote good health,” one hour’s exercise daily, healthcare services and a separate bed with bedding that provides adequate warmth.

Current and former detainees are quoted as witnesses in Sonke’s heads of argument.

'Uncontrollable' facility

“When I arrived .... I told them that I was HIV-positive. They never gave me my antiretroviral treatment, even though I had told them my status and asked them for medication. As a result, I defaulted on my HIV treatment.

“As a result of my detention at Pollsmoor [remand facility] my CD4 count dropped and my viral load has increased,” one says.

“I feel really claustrophobic all the time,” another, Rafiek Dreyer, says.

Dreyer claims that there is not enough food for everyone. “Gangboys” sell meat to the detainees that have the cash and want to purchase extra.

“There is not enough toilet paper, cleaning materials or soap. So the place is disgusting and people get sick all the time,” he says.

Athenkosi Myoli says there are not enough beds in the cell, so detainees either share beds or sleep on the floor. Gang members get preferential treatment.

“I joined a gang to make things easier for myself,” Myoli says.

In March this year there were 4325 detainees. The remand facility is only meant to house 1619.

National government has neither opposed the application, nor filed an affidavit explaining the situation.

The facility’s acting head, Cecil Jacobs, asks in his answering affidavit for the application to be dismissed with costs. He however describes the situation in the facility as “uncontrollable”.

Over 300% capacity

He says that some of the detainees who are quoted as witnesses “readily admit their gang membership”. None of them say they have complained to a unit official.

Most of the witnesses were arrested on serious charges, he says. Most of their statements seem to have been obtained in a one-sided and selective manner. Neither he nor any officials were given the chance to respond.

The aim of the application is to force government to develop a comprehensive plan, including timeframes for its implementation, that will address deficiencies detailed by detainees, and by Justice Edwin Cameron, outlined in his report on his visit to the facility.

Cameron visited the facility in 2015. His observations echo the detainees’ claims. During his visit, the facility was at just over 300% capacity with 4198 detainees.

Jacobs believes Cameron’s report constitutes “inadmissible hearsay evidence” and should be struck from the record as none of the respondents have consented to its admission.

On a number of occasions, Jacobs says the situation at Pollsmoor has changed since Cameron’s report. He outlines these changes in a second “Action Plan”.

However, according to Sonke’s heads of argument: “The undeniable (and undenied) truth is that conditions at Pollsmoor RDF (remand detention facility) remain appalling and inhuman. The second Action Plan does not contradict this.”

If Sonke is successful, government would be compelled to provide a report to the court within a month detailing what it has done to improve conditions and to meet Cameron’s recommendations.

The court application seeks to force the facility's head to submit on the findings of weekly cell inspections from December 2012 to date.

The case will begin in the Western Cape High Court on December 5.

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