Covid-19 in prisons: Only inmates convicted of petty crimes will go free, says Lamola

Only offenders who committed petty crimes will be eligible to be included in the 19 000 inmates who will be released on parole to combat the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Correctional Services Commissioner Arthur Fraser briefed the media on Friday on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that he had authorised the release of low-risk inmates who have already served their minimum sentence, or who would approach this period in the next five years.

Lamola said that approximately 19 000 inmates across the country would benefit from this decision, provided they met requirements of the parole board.

READ | Ramaphosa authorises release of low-risk inmates to combat spread of Covid-19 in prisons

"They will be considered on a case-by-case basis and those who qualify will be placed on parole after all the due processes including Victim Offender Dialogues, have accordingly unfolded," Lamola said.

Crimes of need

The only inmates that are eligible for release are those who were convicted and imprisoned for petty crimes. Fraser described it as crimes of need.

These types of crimes include shoplifting, theft and trespassing.

Lamola said that the most vulnerable of these offenders, such as those with underlying health problems, the elderly and female offenders with infants, will be prioritised to be released during the process.

The minister reiterated that inmates serving sentences for sexual offences, child abuse, murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, sedition, high treason, sabotage, terrorism, offenders sentenced to life imprisonment and those who had violated the Domestic Violence Act were excluded from the Covid-19 parole dispensation.

Prisoners affected by this decision will not be pardoned or have their sentences remitted, instead, they will be placed on parole and will continue to serve their sentence under community corrections until they reach their respective sentence expiry dates.

Overcrowding

The decision to place 19 000 offenders on parole was made by Ramaphosa as a measure to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in prison facilities.

READ | Taxi driver who continued working after positive test charged for attempted murder

As of 7 May, there are 172 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in correctional centres across the country.

A breakdown by the Department of Correctional Services shows that 95 officials and 77 inmates have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak. There have also been three deaths due to Covid-19 in the prison system.

It is expected that these numbers will rise.

Lamola said overcrowding in prisons presented a significant challenge in the fight against the spread of Covid-19, because the virus spread quicker in closed spaces.

READ | Covid-19: Two East London prison inmates die amid 'significant increase' in recoveries

"Another exacerbating factor is that some of the inmates already have compromised immune systems, as a result of chronic conditions.

"This makes them more vulnerable to Covid-19 and it can have a catastrophic effect to inmates, officials, communities around correctional centres, as well as the broader public."

According to the minister, as of 4 May, prisons were 32.58% overcrowded.

LIST | You could be slapped with a R5 000 fine for breaking these lockdown rules

"We have a total of 157 208 inmates, whereas our accommodation capacity is 118 572. This number includes a total of 56 536 inmates who are in remand detention. This means our accommodation capacity is exceeded by 38 636 inmates," Lamola said.

"The DCS has continually adopted a conscientious approach in implementing its Covid-19 Disaster Management Response Strategy across all its centres and offices. This strategy entails prevention, containment, treatment and recovery.

"We are confronted however, with the glaring impossibility of maintaining physical distancing in our centres due to overcrowding."

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