Anxious wait for non-South African prisoners as Home Affairs take first step to ease parolee backlog

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  • Following the move to Level 1 lockdown, prisoners who have been waiting since March to return to their home countries, have finally seen the first light of their long overdue release dates.
  • A mix of scepticism and fear colour the days after Home Affairs officials first visited South African prisons this month to commence the repatriation process of qualifying offenders.
  • On the other hand, South African prisoners are also affected by the backlog in the release of parolees as the process comes with many moving parts. 

Over the course of three months, the Wits Justice project received numerous complaints from prisoners across the country. Many of these were parole-related and from non-South African prisoners who claim they have been held in prison past their release dates.

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) charged the delay in repatriation of foreign nationals to lockdown restrictions limiting the executable duties of Home Affairs.

However, South Africa's parole process had long been a complex one which included a dialogue between the victim and the perpetrator of a crime and at least one appearance before the parole board. Additionally, the national lockdown exacerbated the backlog in the already embattled process. 

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Months after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the initial 21-day lockdown, foreign nationals who had been awaiting their release from South African prisons finally had their first call with Home Affairs officials in charge of the repatriation process. While the past eight months caused anxiety, anger and frustration, prisoners had taken the hope of recent developments with a little more than a pinch of salt. 

Amos, A Zimbabwean national who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising his reputation said:

We are waiting for Home Affairs to come [back on Tuesday] to give us feedback on whether they will take us to Lindela since they have done the first stage.

According to Amos, Home Affairs officials visited Witbank Correctional Services on 15 October to initiate the processing of foreign nationals due to be released on parole. However, Wits Justice Project (WJP) made several attempts to contact Home Affairs and had yet to receive a response confirming the account of events as reported by a number of incarcerated foreign nationals.

Lucias*, an inmate at Modderbee Correctional Centre said the parole board indicated that he would be released on 26 March. However, nearly seven months after his release date, he remained behind bars without any indication of when he could expect to be released.

Not going anywhere

"Correctional Services said we are not going anywhere until Level 1 [of the lockdown]. Now Level 1 [has] come and they're saying Home Affairs must come to take us to Lindela, but Home Affairs is doing nothing," said Lucias, who spoke to WJP on condition of anonymity.

"Everyday we see South Africans being released, but for us, we have been waiting for too long," said Lucias.

He said:

They tell us parole is a privilege not a right. It's very sad because we have served our sentences and we were given release dates, but only South Africans get released.

The complaints lodged by prisoners came amid a series of grievances pertaining to overcrowding and poor implementation of Covid-19 safety measures.

On 8 May, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the Department of Correctional Services would release 19 000 low-risk offenders on early parole. Among this, as a means to reduce the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa's overcrowded prisons.

Four months after the announcement, just over half of the qualifying parolees had been released.

"A total of 16 514 inmates have been considered for placement thus far. Thus resulting in a total 12 044 inmates being paroled to date," said DCS spokesperson, Singabakho Nxumalo.

"Foreign nationals are deported back to their countries by Home Affairs after serving time. The process has been slow due to lockdown regulations. It is picking up now as borders are now open," he added.

However, some Foreign nationals were still waiting for a visit from Home Affairs. Others who had had their first visit were growing despondent as the promise to repatriate them had been deferred without notice.

"The Home Affairs [department] is the problem. They come and take people to court and instead of taking them to Lindela [for repatriation] they bring people back to prison," said Lucias from Modderbee Prison.

Meanwhile, some prisoners expressed concern, saying overcrowding posed an even bigger risk to their health under the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"We are not safe," said Thapelo*. "I am concerned about our health more than anything."

Thapelo, a South African prisoner, asked to remain anonymous for fear of consequences.

He said:

There are even prisoners who are South African that are still waiting to be released on parole.

Melusi*, a South African prisoner at Kgosi Mampuru, had served eight years of his 12 year sentence for robbery. Due for parole, Melusi was yet to participate in the Victim-Offender-Dialogue (VOD) in order to be paroled. The process was largely dependent on the victim's willingness to participate.

"It must be noted though that not all the victims of crime are keen on participating in the VOD sessions," said Nxumalo.

"In such cases, we ask them to sign and acknowledge that they were approached and opted not to participate. This will mean that the inmate's parole consideration by the Parole Board will not include the VOD element."

While waiting to be released on parole, Melusi contracted Covid-19.

Melusi said:

The said news is that we were never shown our results. We asked the nurses and they told us that we will get them as soon as they have them because the only thing they have is a list of people who are positive.

Adding to this, Melusi said the isolation of inmates who may have been in contact with those diagnosed with Covid-19, had been less than satisfactory.

"Some people might not show symptoms, but they still need to be isolated because they might have the virus and spread it on to others in their cell."

DCS Deputy Commissioner of Communications, Logan Naidoo said it's an unsubstantiated allegation.

"As stated above, the department's Covid-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Guidelines are implemented in line with the Department of Health Protocols. In the event of any test being conducted, including Covid-19 testing for inmates, counselling is provided, the procedure is explained to the relevant inmate on an individual basis and the inmate is also informed of the expected date of receipt of the results."

- Sumeya Gasa is a Senior Journalist at the Wits Justice Project, in South Africa. The WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to the criminal justice system.

See: www.witsjusticeproject.co.za

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