President Cyril Ramaphosa has authorised the release of 19 000 prisoners – out of a population of 155 000. Those released include awaiting-trial inmates, who had committed so-called soft crimes, and non-violent offenders, all of whom would be out on parole.
They would include prisoners incarcerated in correctional facilities considered high risk for the infection of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The presidency said the parole dispensation would apply only to “low-risk inmates who have passed their minimum detention period or will approach this period in the coming five years”.
“This dispensation excludes inmates sentenced to life imprisonment or serving terms for specified other serious crimes, including sexual offences, murder and attempted murder, gender-based violence and child abuse.”
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko said on Friday that this measure was taken in accordance with a call by the UN to recuse inmate populations to combat the spread of the virus in correctional facilities.
“The president has taken this step in response to a call by the UN to all countries to reduce prison populations so that social distancing and self-isolation conditions can be observed during this period.”
In South Africa, correctional facilities have had severe outbreaks of Covid-19 infections among inmates and correctional services personnel.
On Thursday, the correctional services department announced three new recorded Covid-19 cases among correctional services personnel, bringing the total number of infections in correctional facilities to 172.
The department said of the 172 infections, 84 individuals had since recovered from the virus.
The Eastern Cape was the most affected. By Friday morning 102 people – 36 officials and 66 inmates – had contracted the virus with 58 recoveries and two deaths.
The Western Cape had the second-highest number of individuals infected at correctional services with 55 cases.
Diko said South Africa was following in the footsteps of countries across the world which had heeded the call by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and had released a number of offenders in detention.
“The president has taken this decision in terms of Section 82(1)(a) of the Correctional Services Act of 1998 which empowers the president to authorise at any time the placement on correctional supervision or parole of any sentenced prisoner, subject to conditions that may be recommended by the correctional supervision and parole board,” said Diko.
The inmates would be placed on parole instead of having their sentences remitted. They would, therefore, continue to serve their sentence under community corrections until they reached their respective sentence expiry dates.
Diko said the placement of qualifying sentenced offenders would take place over a 10-week period and would commence as soon as all parole board processes had been finalised and all relevant rehabilitation and pre-release programmes were in order.
She said Ronald Lamola, the minister of justice and correctional services, would provide more details on the parole placement programme in a public briefing.