Activists have released a video showing human rights violations, overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions at Pollsmoor Prison’s awaiting-trial section.
The documentary, Pollsmoor Remand: They Treated Us Like animals, was uploaded in mid-May on Bhekisisa.org, the investigative health unit of the Mail & Guardian. The film was produced by Demelza Bush for Sonke Gender Justice, after the organisation brought a case against the Department of Correctional Services in March challenging the “deplorable” conditions endured by prison staff and detainees and demanding that the department ease overcrowding.
In April 2015, Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron released a report following a visit to the prison, pointing to the poor state of the facility. Judge Cameron’s report described the cells in both the male and female remand centres as “filthy and cramped.” He also noted the staff shortage at the prison with a staff ratio of one to four inmates, half the minimum requirement.
The documentary took four months to produce and includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with former inmates showing that little has changed at the prison since Judge Cameron’s visit: inmates tell of being denied chronic medication and contracting diseases, such as TB and HIV, which they then spread into their communities upon their release. One man describes the foul smell in the cells and overcrowding, saying prisoners sleep with their clothes on and that there are lice everywhere. He says 70 people use one shower and one toilet, which is blocked most of the time. Unscreened, prisoners cover the toilet with a blanket to block the stench.
“No one complains because they don’t want to be called a cry baby,” says the Gugulethu man, describing his three-and-a-half months in the awaiting-trial section, in 2009.
Another prisoner says they only get soap once a month and it is shared between 15 people, including those with skin problems. During his four months in the awaiting-trial section, he says, he was not only forced to default on his antiretroviral (ARV) medication, he also picked up TB, for which he wasn’t treated, despite fellow inmates telling warders he needed a doctor. The man says he was charged with rape in April 2015 but was released after four months when DNA evidence proved his innocence.
Also in the film, a female inmate tells how she picked up an infection from a toilet seat while five months pregnant. At the time, she says, she was sharing a cell with 97 others during her three days in Pollsmoor.
To view the video, go to http://bhekisisa.org/multimedia/2016-05-10-pollsmoor-remand-they-treated-us-like-animals
In response, DCS national commissioner Zach Modise conceded that overcrowding, particularly at Pollsmoor’s awaiting-trial section, might continue for the foreseeable future. He insisted the awaiting-trial section had been “cleaned up” following a rat infestation.
In September 2015, there was a massive evacuation of thousands of inmates from Pollsmoor after two prisoners died and scores of others were deemed to be at high risk of exposure to leptospirosis. This infectious bacterial disease is found in rodents, dogs, and other mammals and can be transmitted to humans. (“Prison scrub-down”, Bulletin September 24).
Some of South Africa’s most dangerous criminals are held in Pollsmoor, including members of the Numbers gangs: 26s, 27s and 28s.
Sonke Gender Justice policy development and advocacy officer Ariane Nevin says Pollsmoor’s awaiting trial section is wildly overcrowded. The 52-year-old prison was 272 percent full in April, which meant it had 4 400 detainees when it was only built to hold 2 355.
“We’re asking for information so we can better structure our recommendations to address the issues. We understand that it’s hard on the staff because people can’t do their jobs when they’re scared or work in poor conditions,” said Ms Nevin.
Since 2011, she said, overcrowding had ranged between 247 percent and 305 percent, and 15 percent to 18 percent of inmates were inside because they could not afford bail. Some had been awaiting trial for two years.
Ms Nevin said ex-inmates had told how they had shared cells built for 25 people with up to 85 prisoners. They did not have clean blankets, toilets were not partitioned for privacy and most inmates did not get hot water.
Lewies Davids, spokesperson for Pollsmoor, said that on Monday June 6 there were 4 314 inmates, with 1 619 in the awaiting trial section. DCS statistics put the prison population at 238 percent, as of November last year.
Mr Davids said single cells should hold one person but at Pollsmoor they held three, and certain communal cells built to hold 19 prisoners, held 70, on average.
In November last year, a committee in Parliament was told that over the previous five months, it had cost the Department of Correctional Services R9.8 billion to keep South Africa’s prisoners behind bars as well as monitor those on parole. Incarceration alone had cost R6.5 billion.
Soraya Solomon, chief executive officer of the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) says it has an innovative solution to overcrowding of awaiting trial prisoners but government support for it has been lacking.
According to Nicro, out of a total prison population of 159 563, only
107 471 have been sentenced and are serving time, while 45 043 people, or 29.5 percent, are detainees on remand, who are clogging up the system and costing more than R20 billion a year.
Three years ago, said Ms Solomon, Nicro launched a technology that allows low-risk offenders to remain in their homes and communities instead of adding to South Africa’s overcrowded prison population. Called Remand Revolution it uses cellphones to track and communicate with offenders or parolees. It also includes an ankle bracelet tracking system, and a unique, portable alcohol monitoring device that offenders use to take spot-check breathalyser tests that are sent back to Nicro along with an instant photo of the offender.
Remand Revolution blends with rehabilitation programmes to reintegrate offenders into their communities.
Ms Solomon said low-risk offenders would be better off in a supportive, community-based rehabilitation programme instead of the prison system where they “are exposed to more severe criminal elements that impede their chances of rehabilitation, leading them down a path of far more serious crimes, particularly if they’re disconnected from their families, communities and places of worship”.
However, Ms Solomon said that despite the programme’s obvious benefits it had not drawn sufficient support or funding from the DCS.
“Unfortunately, we have not implemented our programme as we have not had buy-in from the department nor funding. We believe that our programme will focus not only on electronic tagging but on changing behaviour,” said Ms Solomon.
In November 2015, director of Correctional Services, Phumla Chief, said electronic tags monitored 748 offenders in South Africa. She said it cost R167.33 a day to release a prisoner with a monitoring device while it cost R350 a day to have the prisoner incarcerated.
But, due to budget constraints, DCS has been forced to cut back on the number of inmates it had hoped to fit with the washable and reusable electronic devices. The department had hoped to fit 10 000 inmates.
South Africa’s prison population vs the world
According to the World Prison Brief by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, South Africa has a total prisoner population of 159 241 people, as of March 2015 – including awaiting trial detainees. This makes it the 11th highest prisoner population in the world, in terms of sheer numbers, but when expressed as a ratio we drop several places: 35th (out of 222 regions) with 292 prisoners per 100 000 people.
America tops the rankings globally, with 2.2 million prisoners. This includes 731 200 people in local jails, as well as 1.48 million people in state or federal prisons. America has 4 575 prisons with an official holding capacity of 2 157 769.
China has the second highest prison population in the world, with 1.65 million prisoners, followed by Russia with 644,700.
San Marino, a micro-state surrounded by Italy, has only two prisoners (out of a population of 33 700), the lowest figure in the world, ahead of Liechtenstein, with seven prisoners out of a population of 37 130. San Marino also has the lowest prisoner rate in the world, at six per 100 000 people