The state of our prisons: Overcrowding, suicides and shortage of care for mental illness


Overcrowding remains a serious problem in South African prisons and the situation of mentally-ill inmates has become urgent in light of recent deaths.

This is according to the latest annual report by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), which was able to visit 81 out of the country's 243 correctional centres during the 2017/18 financial year.

Owing to financial and staff constraints, the JICS is only able to visit each of these centres once every three years.

The correctional centres collectively house more than 160 000 inmates, of which more than 16 000 are serving life sentences.

The report found that overcrowding remained a "serious and persisting" issue in prisons.

Eastern Cape prisons were the worst affected at 57% overcrowded, followed by Gauteng at 48% and the Western Cape at 45%.

Of concern was the treatment and future of inmates who have mental illnesses, especially those who were declared state patients in terms of the Mental Health Care Act and who were meant to be transferred to specialised facilities within 14 days of receiving notice.

"It has been previously reported by JICS that the circumstances regarding state patients were not acceptable. Their interim accommodation in prison, pending their transfer, is considered cruel and inhumane," the report stated.

'Not equipped to deal with them'

The JICS identified 1 200 inmates who have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness during its inspections.

Most of these inmates were treated at the prison and kept with the general population.

This was found to be the case because there were too few public mental health hospitals and a shortage of beds at these facilities.

In Gauteng, there is Weskoppies in Pretoria West, while in the Eastern Cape there are only two: Fort England and Komani in Queenstown.

"It is clear that numerous inmates in our correctional centres suffer from mental illness and DCS (the Department of Correctional Services) [are] not equipped to deal with them," the report stated.

Inspecting Judge Johann van der Westhuizen was of the opinion that the situation of mentally-ill inmates had become urgent as a result of recent deaths.

The number of unnatural deaths reported by correctional services increased to 82, from 52 deaths in 2016/17.

Almost 40% of deaths in the last financial year were suicides. This percentage could increase once autopsy reports had been finalised to determine classification.

Van der Westhuizen recalled: "In Durban-Westville Correctional Centre, I saw in a few minutes two women who had been convicted [of] killing their babies; one her seven-year old son; and another who had slit the throat of a neighbour's child who had "irritated" her, but explained that she was "sick in [the] head" when she did it."

JICS 'severely hampered'

In one suicide case, it was found that the Department of Correctional Services had not followed policy and procedures in its treatment of a 56-year-old sentenced inmate at Helderstroom Prison in the Western Cape.

He was admitted while on psychiatric treatment and had defaulted on his medication. An official later found him hanging in a single cell unit.

The inspectorate found that officials had made him sign a consent form every time he refused medication, instead of being compelled to take it. 

He should also not have been placed in a single cell without a 24-hour guard.

The independence of the JICS has long been debated and is the subject of a court challenge by Sonke Gender Justice in the Western Cape High Court, due to be heard next month.

The report conceded that the JICS's operational independence and capability can and has been "severely hampered" by a shortage of funds and its financial and administrative dependence on the correctional services department. 

The correctional services department told News24 that it fully supported the JICS's independence.

It noted the report and would co-operate fully to address the relevant areas that had been highlighted.

"Our relationship with JICS is one of collaboration to create better corrections for a safer South Africa," said department spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo.

"In the coalface of a shrinking fiscus, we will continue to do everything possible to ensure realisation of the ideals espoused in the National Development Plan 2030."

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