Violence and Covid-19 take toll on SA’s prisoners

The Covid-19 pandemic is having a severe impact on prisoners throughout the country, but far worse are the harrowing accounts of violence against inmates by warders who are meant to be taking care of them.

Latest statistics from the Department of Correctional Services show that 158 officials and 62 inmates have died of Covid-19-related illness. In addition to the pandemic, inmates through their families have reached out to the Wits Justice Project with allegations of abuse at the hands of officials.According to relatives of inmates at the maximum-security Leeuwkop Prison in Johannesburg, a number of prisoners who had been badly beaten had lodged cases against warders at SAPS Sandton, whose members visited the prison in the past week to take down their reports.

In one instance before the festive season, warders concealing their identities with balaclavas allegedly entered cells and instructed inmates to lie down on the floor.

They allegedly put leg-irons on them before assaulting them, demanding to know whether they had drugs in their possession.

“Some were drunk, and the inmates were saved only through the intervention of a senior colleague who told them to stop because the aim was to search, not beat,” the relative said.

Some of the inmates required treatment in hospital for their injuries. Pictures shared by the family showed heavy bruise marks.

An officer at SAPS said several cases of grievous body harm and torture had been reported in the past, but the cases went nowhere as officials from the Department of Correctional Services apparently protected their members, sometimes with the co-operation of medical staff.

Four complaints of alleged torture were reported to the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), the oversight body headed by Justice Edwin Cameron whose mandate is to uphold and protect the rights of all inmates.

Prisoners’ rights are also protected under the Constitution, and JICS spokesperson Emerantia Cupido said it had dealt with various issues regarding the management of the Covid-19 pandemic at correctional centres across South Africa.

She said the matter involving the four complainants was followed up immediately and referred to the JICS Regional Inspector for a formal investigation which would result in a preliminary report that would contain findings and recommendations.

In another incident earlier this month, an inmate died after allegedly being stabbed by other inmates at Mangaung, where gang wars are reportedly part of the daily struggle at the private prison near Bloemfontein.

A murder docket has been opened at the Bloemspruit police station.

Cupido highlighted as a concern a submission by a Correctional Services internal investigator that the Sandton police refused to register any criminal cases/dockets of assault or any criminal matter when an inmate sustained injuries without a medical report (known as a J88).

“These reports (J88) are completed by medical personnel or a medical doctor who treated/consulted the inmate or injured person and who then records the injuries.

“JICS wishes to state clearly that there is no formal prerequisite for J88s for a criminal complaint to be registered. It is possible to obtain the J88 at a later stage as part of the investigation.

“The fact that the police investigator refused to register criminal cases without the J88 medical reports can lead to delays and loss of evidence. In addition, victims may decide to no longer lay charges,” she said.

Cupido added that they were also in the process of investigating a matter at Leeuwkop Medium A in which 15 Correctional Services employees had been suspended as a result of the death of an inmate.

But she said the suspension of the 15 was lifted and they were currently working at the gates of the correctional centre (not working with inmates).

A preliminary report with findings and recommendations would be submitted on this matter.

Referring to the pandemic, Cupido said: “JICS monitors the Covid-19 situation closely.

“We take cognisance of hot spots, not just within the country at large, but also, based on statistical trends at various correctional centres.

“We are concerned about the health of the inmates, those who guard them and JICS staff, especially those who are working hands-on inside correctional centres across South Africa.”

She confirmed that a warder at Leeuwkop had recently died and that 10 inmates who were infected with Covid-19 were currently in quarantine.

Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said a Covid-19 update provided indicated a recovery rate of 92%, with only 526 active cases.

“These figures do demonstrate that the Department of Correctional Services is doing far better. This reality has disappointed many people who had earlier predicted that the situation will be far worse in correctional centres.”

Nxumalo added that complaints made by those purporting to be representing inmates were not legitimate as figures demonstrated that it was officials who were facing a serious challenge, as they stayed in communities where the virus was rife.

Asked whether the number of complaints about conditions by inmates had increased during the pandemic, Nxumalo said the department’s standard operating procedures required that complaints and requests be taken from inmates on a daily basis.

“We have been transparent, and continue to be. Where there have been outbreaks, we make statements and account in terms of what is happening.

“We did this at Helderstroom Correctional in the Western Cape.

“It has to be reiterated: you cannot hide Covid-19 cases as District Offices from Health must also monitor all areas where people have tested positive,” he said.

Regarding the violence against inmates at Leeuwkop, Nxumalo dismissed the pictures shared on a WhatsApp group as “old images” recently circulated by an organisation purporting to represent the interests of inmates.

“Inmates can always open criminal cases; this is their basic right that can never be denied.”

Regarding the vaccination of inmates, Nxumalo said the programme was managed by the Department of Health and inmates would be part of phase 2 in terms of the roll-out.

“We have made plans which will assist the Department of Health when starting with inoculation.”

*This article was originally published in the Sunday Independent

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