Unspeakable horrors of South Africa’s prisons

In recent months, with colleagues from the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (Jics), I have visited prisons in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Vryheid and Newcastle. In each, disturbing evidence of dilapidation confronted us.

Leaks, floods, broken windows, unrepaired electric installations, stinking ablutions. It was dismal, the more so because all the degradation could readily be repaired – but wasn’t.

This is an increasing problem for the department of correctional services (DCS). Much of it can be traced to our massive but often-dysfunctional department of public works and infrastructure (DPWI). The DPWI is responsible for most prison repairs – but too often seems unable to tackle even elementary maintenance.

The walls, ceilings, roofs, electrical and water reticulation, hot-water systems and perimeter fences of too many correctional centres are in a grave state of unattended disrepair. Why? Because of a cumbersome, often dead-end bureaucratic arrangement. All but the most trivial repairs, maintenance and construction requests have to be submitted to DPWI. And too often it is unresponsive.

Despite DPWI’s big fat budget (over R8 billion), DCS officials tell us of repeated calls they log, umpteen requests – all without outcome. More often even, near-interminable delays choke the chance of getting anything done. The visible result is awful.

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Jics on 15 June submitted a truly dismal list of undone doables to the parliamentary committee overseeing prisons. Our report describes nationwide instances of unsatisfactory construction, maintenance and repair. Yet we told parliament only about the worst cases.

In March this year, we visited some of these centres in KwaZulu-Natal. At Stanger, the whole prison structure is decrepit. The roofing consists of degrading asbestos – posing a serious health risk to inmates. Predictably, heavy rain causes the roof to leak.

Besides, the roof is very low, so there are no beds. Why? Because the inmates could stack them and escape through the leaky roof. This means they sleep on the floor – which violates the promise in the Bill of Rights, and in the 1998 Correctional Services Act that prisoners shall be held in conditions “consistent with human dignity”.

What awaited us at Durban Medium B prison at Westville was worse. Though the prison was built relatively recently, rain leaks into the passages and kitchen. Paint peels and mildew grows from the walls, which have cracks that allow water in. The hospital unit and reception are regularly flooded. Kitchen equipment is dysfunctional, and the hot water system never functions.

In the overcrowded cells we saw, frequent water shortages exacerbate hygiene and sanitation problems. In one cell, with a capacity of 33, we found no fewer than 81 inmates squeezed in. They all share a single toilet. And these are sentenced prisoners – not awaiting trial. So none of us can comfort ourselves that their stay is temporary.

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And we don’t point fingers at DCS personnel – they, nearly as much as the inmates, suffer from these defects. Jics has reported on all these conditions. We trust that effective action has supervened – but has it? I can provide many examples, too many.

Port Shepstone: renovations are urgently needed to the dilapidated infrastructure; another hazardous asbestos roof; one of the units is a fire hazard. Jics found that the building should not be occupied by human beings, and that it must be evacuated urgently. Has this been done? We fear not.

Mount Fletcher, Mount Frere, Groenpunt, Flagstaff, Bizana, Thohoyandou, Pollsmoor, Vryheid – all had similar problems.

The best facility I’ve seen is situated amid the opencast coalmines south of Newcastle. Ekuseni is a well-run youth correctional centre, with personnel whose firm supervision is matched by flexibility and palpable caring. Yet the buildings – a former mine compound – are unsuitable for housing inmates.

None of these conditions should be laid at the door of the department’s personnel. They are as alarmed as Jics is by the grim state of infrastructure. They are desperate for relief. One head of centre said they submit a monthly list of unattended defects to both the prisons department and to DPWI. We were given a reference number. Nothing has been done.

So what’s up at DPWI? The chaotic succession of directors-general plaguing many government departments has especially afflicted DPWI. A string of acting, disciplined and fired heads, combined with political instability resulting from Cabinet appointments, have hobbled its functionality.

So what is to be done? On a national scale, all the easy, “obvious” things – principled, butt-kicking, corruption-free leadership from the top, with rigorous accountability and effective systems. Easy? Of course.

More practically, DPWI and DCS should agree to revert to what I understand was the previous policy – where centres had power to manage a larger range of maintenance issues themselves. Quick and inexpensive fixes can be implemented.

The centralisation of maintenance authorisations seems to have complicated and delayed repairs. At least, DPWI should appoint a top-level national official to deal specifically with prisons, and to impel their departmental workforce to do the necessary work.

This article was republished from GroundUp. Read the original article here.


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