Covid-19: Call for minister to release some prisoners

Pollsmoor prison.
Pollsmoor prison.
Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp

Justice Edwin Cameron, the Inspecting Judge of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), and several organisations have written a letter to Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola, requesting the release of some inmates to alleviate overcrowding in prisons and curb the spread of Covid-19.

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The signatories to the letter include members of the Detention Justice Forum, Africa Criminal Justice Reform, African Policing Oversight Forum, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Just Detention International (South Africa), National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders, Phoenix Zululand, Scalabrini Centre and Sonke Gender Justice, GroundUp reports.

JICS is an oversight body that investigates, reports and makes recommendations on the conditions of correctional centres and the treatment of inmates to ensure that inmates' human rights are not violated.

In the letter to Lamola, the signatories said the first positive case of Covid-19 in prison was reported on 6 April. Just three weeks later, a total of 115 cases have been confirmed in prisons across four provinces, he said.

"There is every reason to fear that the virus may spread more fearsomely within our correctional system, and soon," wrote the signatories.

To curb the spread of the coronavirus, the signatories suggested a "carefully - targeted, selective release" of inmates.

These included elderly inmates over 60 years old, frail, sick and terminally ill inmates, petty and non-violent offenders including non-violent drug-related offences, inmates with less than one year of their sentence remaining, inmates approaching their parole date, inmates imprisoned with the option of paying a fine and foreign nationals detained on immigrant-related charges.

Troubled by reports of unrest in prisons

"Conditions of overcrowding and strained resources mean that correctional centres and their personnel are not able to respond adequately to the health needs of inmates. This imperils both inmates and officials," the signatories wrote.

They also said JICS was troubled by reports of unrest and violence in prisons that appear to be linked to Covid-19.

The letter writers said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged governments to reduce prison populations and to prevent uncontrollable outbreaks of Covid-19.

Governments around the world have already taken significant action to decongest prisons through emergency releases, they said.

"Our call to you asks you to do no more than many other jurisdictions and countries have already done. And it has strong support in international law and practice," said the signatories.

When asked for comment, Lamola's spokesperson, Chrispin Phiri, said the minister would not respond to the letter via the media.

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