Prisoner observer contract expires

JICS prison visitors Maryanne Downs of Noordhoek, Julia Finye of Philippi and Nombuyiselo Tini from Bergvliet.

The contracts of two independent observers who help to protect prisoners’ rights at Pollsmoor prison expire this month, and several organisations have expressed concern about the possible impact of them not being renewed.

The observers, or independent correctional centre visitors (ICCVs) as they are formally known work under the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS). The service was established as an independent office by Nelson Mandela in the late 1990s.

Tracy Stallard, of Xchange Connexion, said the observers,

Nombuyiselo Tini and Maryanne Downs, had been instrumental in a stakeholder partnership that had taken months to build.

Each ICCV has a three-year contract which may not automatically be renewed. They are allowed to reapply but might get another contract elsewhere.

About four months ago Ms Downs and Ms Tini invited organisations and individuals to join these monthly meeting held in the boardroom of the remand section.

Apart from Xchange Connexion, other organisations that have sent a letter to JICS about the change are Sonke Gender Justice, Sharing Our Ubuntu Legacy (SOUL), Imagine SA and Change Our World.

“Through these working partnerships we have identified numerous opportunities that will ensure the wellbeing and rehabilitation of prisoners in Pollsmoor and for future projects,” said: Ms Stallard.

She fears the trust between Department of Correctional Service (DCS) staff, prisoners and their families will also be lost.

At a meeting, on November 7, visitor committee coordinator Wayne Phore said “Ms Downs and Ms Tini had been a treasure for JICS.”

At these meetings, ICCVs get together with unit managers to discuss issues raised by prisoners. These range from healthcare to challenges of communicating with family, bail applications, complaints about a DCS member and access to legal aid.

Ms Downs said complaints are recorded and passed on to the relevant unit manager who is then given seven days to resolve the issue.

They also inspect correctional units, conduct private consultations with prisoners and write monthly reports which are sent to Judge Johann van der Westhuizen, of JICS(“NGO’s prison upgrade,” Bulletin January 5).

This month issues discussed included the increase of circumcisions done in the prison, the reduction in deaths over the past years, the shortage of nurses (there should be 15 but there are only eight) and the need for a dentist and social worker.

Head of Pollsmoor’s remand detention unit, Jerry Naidoo, said work was ongoing on these issues. He said there had been a huge improvement in the morale and health of prisoners since Western Cape High Court Judge Vincent Saldanha ruled that overcrowding at Pollsmoor should be reduced to 120% by Wednesday December 21, 2016.

This following the release in 2015 of a documentary, Pollsmoor Remand: They Treated Us Like Animals, showing human rights violations, overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions at Pollsmoor Prison’s awaiting-trial section.

Produced by Demelza Bush for Sonke Gender Justice, the organisation brought a case against the DCS challenging the “deplorable” conditions and demanded that the department ease overcrowding.

In April 2015, Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron released a report following a visit to the prison, described the cells as “filthy and cramped.” He also noted the staff shortage with a ratio of one officer to four inmates, half the minimum requirement.

In December 2016, Judge Van der Westhuizen inspected the remand detention unit where larger cells were packed with 80 to 90 prisoners, some sleeping on the floor, others sharing mattresses.

Mr Naidoo says these cells are now occupied by 35 prisoners and each one has a mattress. Pollsmoor is now mostly used as a remand facility which receives few complaints from prisoners.