Edwin Cameron | A visit to 'Sun City' prison: Nightmare to manage the virus in confined spaces

Retired judge Edwin Cameron is the Inspecting Judge of Prisons. (Elizabeth Sejake, City Press)
Retired judge Edwin Cameron is the Inspecting Judge of Prisons. (Elizabeth Sejake, City Press)

Correctional centres are communities that exist on our peripheries. And yet, those inside are not peripheral. They are not outsiders. And they do not live outside our society, writes Edwin Cameron.


For long, long weeks our country has been in lockdown.

Covid-19 has produced a global crisis that threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions.

Since lockdown, the average number of distress calls received daily by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has doubled to 1 400.

Our lives have been disrupted.

As our movements are restricted and our ability to earn an income and support our families is threatened, we are left with the helplessness and anxiety of not knowing how to protect ourselves or our loved ones.  

We are suffering through a moment of collective trauma, in isolation.  

For those incarcerated, the fear and isolation that Covid-19 has forced upon us is sharper.

South Africa’s correctional centres have been functioning under extreme conditions, including overcrowding, for decades – precariousness and helplessness are part of the everyday.

Covid-19 makes the anxieties and vulnerabilities of incarcerated life much worse.  

With overcrowding rife and inadequate hygiene commonplace, United Nations officials continue to signal alarm over the rapid spread of the virus in places of detention. 

On 12 May 2020, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) reported that, in less than a month, a total of 131 officials and 190 inmates tested positive for the virus.

Commentators rightly warn that the pandemic could entail death sentences for too many incarcerated persons.  

That is why the President’s decisive intervention on 8 May 2020, flexing his powers under both the Constitution and the Correctional Services Act, by bringing forward the parole dates of 19 000 non-violent offenders, is welcome and essential. 

We now await pending action by Minister Ronald Lamola on our even bigger prisons crisis - thousands of awaiting trial detainees who are squeezed into too-small spaces. 

But even with overcrowding relieved by well-warranted releases, human rights oversight remains essential.  

The complaint mechanisms of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) I head remain active.  Daily, our regional offices continue to engage with correctional centres. 

Mandatory reporting - which obliges the Department to report deaths, segregations, use of force and mechanical restraints - remains compulsory.  

However, our access to correctional centres has been impeded.

JICS relies heavily on the work of independent correctional centre visitors (ICCVs) to perform its mandate. Since the national lockdown, ICCVs have not been able to access centres.  

While DCS has developed a sound and carefully-thought out Covid-19 operations plan, the real test, as with so much else in our country, is not planning and policy - it is practical follow-through. 

On Tuesday 5 May, together with National Commissioner of Correctional Services Arthur Fraser, I visited "Sun City Prison" - otherwise known as the Johannesburg Correctional Centre.

The purpose was to assess DCS's implementation of its Covid-19 standard operating procedures.  

Early that morning, as I drove towards the gates, it was clear that this visit was markedly different from previous inspections.

Visits to inmates by members of the public remained suspended.  Staff had covered their faces with masks.  At the entrance, we were screened for Covid-19 and our temperature was taken.  

A small management team carefully outlined the steps DCS has taken to contain the spread of the virus – but also the challenges remaining.  

Among these, overcrowding was critical – the facility's remand centre was built to house some 2 600 inmates. 

Right now, approximately 6 600 are crammed into it - overcrowding at 4 000 more inmates than bed-space allows, making for a particular form of hell for those inside. 

That is not a problem correctional officials created - or one they can solve. 

Remand Centre head Mr Dlamini led us as, repeatedly, we were offered disposable face masks while at every access point our hands were sanitised.   

Once inside, however, some familiarity returned.  

Each cell is designed to accommodate 22 inmates.

Out of 108 cells occupied, no fewer than 33 house 70 or more male bodies.  

Each cell has only one toilet, one shower, and two basins. 

These have to be shared between up to 70 humans.

I thought: if the virus flourishes in the cold, there is trouble ahead, with winter coming. 

In one of the cells, we saw a water leak affecting the toilet and shower.

And, as we prepare for the first freeze of winter, inmates are sleeping on blanket bundles on the concrete floor.  There simply aren’t enough beds.  

Additionally, overcrowding makes it virtually impossible to afford inmates their constitutionally protected entitlement – at least one hour of outdoor exercise every day.   

And social distancing? 

Officially urged - but practically undoable. 

Proper hygiene and distancing simply cannot be implemented in cells crammed with 70 people.  

We walked into the kitchen. 

Sentenced inmates were cleaning and preparing vegetables for the main meal of the day. 

In the kitchen courtyard, we were warned that here, too, the facility’s forty-year-old structure was showing its cracks - a blocked drain had to be urgently repaired. 

That produced some unexpected good news. 

We came across Mr Vuyane Majozi, a long-term inmate. 

He was adeptly at work, welding steel plates to fix the oil trap in the blocked drain.

We spoke for a few minutes. He explained that he had learned to weld while incarcerated at Kutuma Sinthumule in Limpopo. (Mr Majozi gave me permission to use his name.) 

Mr Dlamini explained that inmates commonly assist with maintenance. Plumbers help repair water leaks, cooks feed the other inmates, and welders repair blockages.   

Later, a head office official mentioned that among the country's 100 000 plus sentenced inmates, there are no fewer than 200 electricians. 

They can all be offered work, on dignified terms, with appropriate remuneration. 

This can help with the eternal difficulties DCS suffers when relying, as it must, on the Department of Public Works to undertake most of its repairs and maintenance. 

Correctional centres are communities that exist on our peripheries. And yet, those inside are not peripheral. 

They are not outsiders. And they do not live outside our society.

They remain part of our community. Traffic in and out of our prisons continues daily. 

We like to think we can lock people up and "throw away the key". 

But we cannot. 

Like us, they remain part of our human whole, with worries, with the need to communicate, and right now, fear for their lives.  

President Ramaphosa acted boldly on 8 May 2020 when he advanced nearly 20 000 parole dates. 

His action brought us in line with countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.  

However, the President’s action runs counter to lockdown arrests.

At our briefing, officials gave us worrying figures: in the first month of lockdown, the awaiting trial population ballooned by over 10%.     

Government and correctional officials recognise the enormous perils of overcrowding.

The 8 May releases, and those imminent, help.

But the new lockdown crimes exacerbate the problem. We must rethink the hard edge of lockdown, for our own sakes, and for everyone’s. 

Covid-19 has tested our leadership with unprecedented challenges. 

DCS's particular nightmare is that it must manage the virus in confined spaces that invite the spread of contagion.  

Our visit to "Sun City" was productive and informative. 

But high-level, announced visits, as this one was, cannot be replicated country-wide in 243 prisons.  

Our ICCVs must be allowed to resume their work.

Allowing them to do so makes good sense for inmates, for personnel, and for a country trying to stave off disaster.  

- Retired Judge Cameron is the Inspecting Judge of Prisons 

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