Prisoners still locked up as Covid-19 cases rise

Inmates at Pollsmoor.

It’s been a month since President Cyril Ramaphosa said 19 000 prisoners would be released to stop Covid-19 spreading in jails, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Prisoners are still inside and Covid-19 cases continue to climb.

Last week, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) said a 58-year-old Western Cape prison official had died. According to DCS spokesman Singabakho Nxumalo, the Western Cape has 229 Covid-19 prison cases – 172 prison officials and 57 inmates, with three deaths and 89 recoveries. Only the Eastern Cape has more, with 490.

When the Bulletin asked Pollsmoor prison for its statistics, spokesman Lewies Davids said he had been instructed to give the media only the national statistics provided by the department.

So far, the country’s prisons have recorded 746 Covid-19 cases – 264 officials and 482 inmates with 173 recoveries.

Mr Nxumalo said overcrowding in the country’s prisons made it hard to stop the virus spreading among the country’s 156 000 inmates.

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola said his department realised the public had concerns about releasing offenders early, but the decision had been considered carefully.

“This measure is aimed at protecting the entire spectrum of South Africa from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Turkey, Iran, France, Italy, Eritrea and Cameroon had also released inmates, he said.

Parole board processes had to be finalised and rehabilitation and pre-release programmes completed before the releases happened, he said.

Only low-risk offenders would be released, he said. It would happen in phases with priority going to inmates over 60, those with underlying health problems, and offenders with infants.

Awaiting trial detainees, he noted, were a big part of prison overcrowding and some 5 000 of them were in the system because they couldn’t afford to post bail.

“We are looking at intervention measures that could be implemented for these inmates working together with all relevant stakeholders.”

Ursula Schenker, a board member of the non-profit Prison Care and Support Network, said the DCS needed to ensure SAPS was alerted when ex-cons returned to their communities.

“This would help to allow people like myself in community development to follow up through my interaction with the people in communities, such as older people, and eliminate abuse and domestic violence that may occur towards the vulnerable.”

The World Health Organization says prisons all over the world can expect “huge mortality rates” from Covid-19 as many of them are overcrowded. This is because the virus spreads quicker in closed spaces and that some of the inmates already have compromised immune systems, as a result of chronic conditions.

Mr Lamola said it had become clear that prison walls could not stop the spread of Covid-19.

“It is also likely that infections in our centres can be transmitted from our centres into society at large as officials regularly interact with their loved ones in their communities and offenders interchangeably. This could occur despite the fact that we are operating under a contagious disease protocol.”

Parolees who broke their parole conditions would be sent back to jail, he said.