Prisoners fear for their lives at Sun City as Covid-19 wave spreads

Correctional service officers and prisoners at the Johannesburg Correctional Services centre.
Correctional service officers and prisoners at the Johannesburg Correctional Services centre.
Denzil Maregele, Gallo Images
  • Covid-19 has claimed about 20 inmates' lives inside South Africa's prisons, according to official figures - but some prisoners say it may be worse.
  • Prisoners say a lack of PPE and the impossibility of social distancing contribute to the spread. 
  • The judicial inspectorate says there has been poor handling of the president’s special parole dispensation.

A lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, the impossibility of social distancing and cold showers are some of the challenges prisoners at the Johannesburg Correctional Centre, better known as "Sun City", have to navigate every day.

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This as the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths inside South Africa's prison facilities are on the rise.

In response, some prisoners at Sun City have been on a hunger strike and protesting since last week.

One prisoner, who spoke to amaBhungane on condition of anonymity, said he had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, of which he had served about seven. Ever since the outbreak of the pandemic, he has feared for his life as he has seen fellow prisoners dying in front of him.

He said that in the previous two weeks, three prisoners have died apparently due to Covid-19 at the Medium A section, where he is incarcerated. He alleges the prison management is keeping it under wraps.

"It's a mess here to tell you the truth. We don't even have a doctor or nurses on site. We don't have PPE, we don't practice social distancing at all. The situation is very bad. People are dying, each and every day. Last week two diabetic prisoners died because they didn't get their injections. It's really bad. I even had to buy my own mask, because we are not provided with any," he said.

"It is even worse at trial. There is overcrowding that is ignored. If you don't have money, you're nothing here. Money talks."

The prisoner claimed that in some cases three men shared one bed.

READ | Prisons still overcrowded despite special parole for thousands to curb Covid-19 spread

In May, when prisons around the country were starting to battle the Covid-19 wave, Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo suggested the situation was under control and the department had plans in place to combat the spread within prison facilities.

Among them were plans to build makeshift hospitals for prisons and to make cells available for those who might need to quarantine.

This is far from the reality for men like those we spoke to.

Chase Nxumalo, from Tembisa, has been held at Sun City since 2013.

He is serving a 21-year sentence for robbery. A father of two, he said he knew of at least 10 prisoners who had died of suspected Covid-19, and claimed many more were sick with the disease.

AmaBhungane could not verify the figure as there is a disconnect between the death claims by inmates and the numbers given by correctional services. Nxumalo said prisoners were not tested and were only quarantined when in a very serious condition.

A friend of his, whose name he supplied, succumbed to Covid-19 about two weeks before. "It was bad to see my friend's lifeless body being taken out of the section.

"He was more of a brother to me; his death was declared Covid-19-related. We don't have any PPE here, social distancing is almost impossible, we get a sanitiser sometimes," said Nxumalo.

"We were only given one mask each about two weeks ago, a mask you're expected to wash and use repeatedly. A prisoner is taken to quarantine once they notice his situation is serious. Wardens have also died on our watch." 

Nxumalo blamed incompetent prison management. "This is not our only problem at Sun City... We have been showering with cold water since March, even before the lockdown and Covid-19 hit our country. This means there are many chances for us to be infected and infect one another... Because they've been saying this virus is easy to get when the weather is cold."

On 18 July, prisoners from Sun City B section started a hunger strike, demanding to be tested for the virus.

READ HERE | 'All escapees' from Malmesbury correctional facility rearrested - justice department

Nxumalo said prisoners had fallen ill, but were still locked up with them in the cell.

"The prison manager doesn't care at all. We are also just waiting for our own deaths because we don't know what will happen next, we even have prisoners sleeping on the floor here. We take our complaints to the prison management, but they are never listened to. Our human rights are taken for granted," Nxumalo complained.

"In the C section, in a cell normally for 20 people, there are around 50 prisoners in there. Two people share one single bed. In B section, there are 42 prisoners instead of 20."

The prisoner accounts diverge sharply from correctional services figures.

'Agenda to instigate inmates'

In response to amaBhungane questions, Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Logan Maistry denied the situation was out of control.

He said that up to 26 July, only 18 inmates had died of Covid-19 throughout the country, while 37 correctional services officials had also succumbed to the virus.

According to official figures up to that date, there had been 4 864 confirmed cases nationally, of which 3 162 were officials and 1 702 inmates. There had been 3 502 recoveries.

READ | Lockdown regulations always done in the 'context' of fighting Covid-19, says Lamola

But he acknowledged that deaths were increasing: in July so far, 27 prisoners and officials have died.

"We believe that a few inmates and some organisations which claim to represent inmates have unfortunately resorted to exaggerating Covid-19 cases in correctional centres in an effort to instigate inmates…

"The majority of inmates have ignored this agenda as they are familiar with the preventative measures in all our centres resulting in 233 active inmate cases across the country," said Maistry. 

"A picture is being painted of a chaotic correctional centre environment, with hope that the public will be mobilised and pushed for mass releases. It must be emphasised that such will never happen… Only those who qualify will be considered for parole placement."

He, however, admitted that prisoners were showering with cold water. 

He said the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure had started a major hot water reticulation project at Sun City, "but work had to be temporarily suspended during the national lockdown".

Maistry also acknowledged that prisons were beset by overcrowding, which is sitting nationally at 17% above formal bed capacity.

"The reduction of overcrowding in order to improve social distancing is one of the approaches the department took as advised by the United Nations. On 8 May 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the release on parole of certain categories of low-risk inmates," said Maistry.

But prisoners have complained the process is slow and bureaucratic. In a letter dated 15 June, prisoners from Sun City Medium B requested the Prisoners Management Committee to engage "regarding the release of all the low risk offenders, including 60 years old plus and terminally ill offenders, etc".

The letter said the process had "become stagnant or came to halt" because of a failure to engage social workers and other services who were part of the release procedures. 

Maistry responded: "As at 15 July 2020, 6 791 qualifying low-risk offenders were granted parole under correctional supervision to continue to serve their sentences in the system of Community Corrections… These offenders were placed out subject to placement conditions which must be complied with until they serve their sentences in full."

Judicial oversight 

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services tracks Covid-19 cases weekly, relying on input from Department of Correctional Services' regional offices.

According to figures the department supplied to the inspectorate, Sun City, comprising the Medium A, B, C and female correctional centres, had, as of 22 July, reported 14 inmates who tested positive for Covid-19 and four who had died.

The inspecting judge, retired constitutional court judge Edwin Cameron, noted that despite sustained requests for Covid-19 statistics, not all prisons had complied fully.

However, he was cautiously supportive of the department's efforts. He said it "appears to have complied with all [World Health Organisation] guidelines and government regulations and has incorporated these into their Covid-19 operating procedures. Our correctional centre independent visitors… have not given us contrary reports.

"Our assessment is not negative at all, but that, with limited resources, given the global shortage of PPEs, [correctional services] is sustaining compliance."

He said, however, that the inspectorate had received a number of complaints regarding the release of prisoners on the special parole dispensation.

"[The inspectorate] has expressed concern, in general, about the efficiency and functionality of parole processes and is engaging in active advocacy on this issue…

"We highlight that the Parole Boards usually set specific criteria for inmates for consideration for parole. This can be a lengthy process, and frustrating for inmates where criteria such as completion of courses have not been capable of fulfilment.

"It remains imperative that parole releases are rigorously considered and scrutinised, to ensure not only that the process is fair, but that the rights and safety of all citizens and of the victims of crime in particular are properly considered."

Wider death tally 

The inspectorate also said that, by law, correctional services were mandated to report all prison deaths to it. Between January and 27 July, a total of 315 prisoners had died nationally – 268 of this natural and 47 unnatural.

Natural deaths include those caused by Covid-19.

Unnatural deaths range from suicide by hanging, alleged overdoses, inmate-on-inmate violence and homicide, which included two prisoners killed by officials.

an amaBhungane investigation

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