Sonke Gender Justice lament lack of forward thinking in Government's Response to Pollsmoor Judgement

Sonke Gender Justice have sent an answering affidavit to the Government's response to the Western Cape High Court on their Pollsmoor court order, saying that more needs to be done with regard to the inhumane conditions that exist which can't be addressed by simply reducing overcrowding. 

Sonke Gender Justice (SGJ) has welcomed the court order of the Western Cape High Court as well as the Department of Correctional Services to reduce overcrowding in Pollsmoor Remand detention facility. However, in submitting an answering affidavit last month to the government’s plan of action, SGJ say more needs to be done to see the proper functioning of the facility in the long term. 

In 2016, SGJ and Lawyers for Human Rights filed a complaint with the Western Cape High Court, which claimed that severe overcrowding- at 300% over capacity at the time - as well as inhumane conditions in the Pollsmoor Remand detention facility should be addressed by the South African government. 

In 2015, Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron produced a scathing report on the facility following his visit to Pollsmoor Remand, where he condemned the terrible conditions inmates had to live in. 

The court concurred with Cameron and found that conditions in the facility were unconstitutional and it ordered the government and the head of the remand facility, Cecil Jacobs, to reduce overcrowding to 150% in six months (June 2017).

SGJ’S concern is that there are a number of factors, such as problems with the building itself and the space available for inmates, which are not being considered in the plight to reduce overcrowding in the facility. Furthermore, the SGJ suggest that the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) is not doing enough to address other inhumane conditions and practices, like assault on inmates, sanitation, and a lack of medical access for inmates, which exist in the facility. 

In an attempt to reduce overcrowding, the DCS has transferred detainees to other prison facilities inside and outside the Western Cape. 

The transfer, SGJ say, is not ideal, especially for people still awaiting trial. The Correctional Services Act states that inmates have the right to be accommodated in correctional centres “closest to the place where he or she is to reside after release…” if it is available. According to SGJ this is not a viable long term solution.

Following the commencement of the transfers of inmates in Pollsmoor, News24 reported that inmates complained about being transferred out of the facility. Talking to News24, the acting regional commissioner for correctional services, Freddie Engelbrecht, said “what upset the prisoners was that, in some cases, they were being taken further away from their families - and often relatives could not afford the increased travel costs.”

The issue of infrastructure was also of a concern to SGJ, as the remand detention building is dilapidated and in need of extensions in order to facilitate new and existing detainees. SGJ appealed to the court to ensure that the Department provides their plans to rebuild and/or renovate Pollsmoor Remand detention facility.

Issues such as exercise, nutrition and medical treatment, SGJ say, is affected and hindered by the overcrowding but it should not mean that overcrowding is used by the DCS as an excuse to not abide by their constitutional responsibility to provide these. 

The Cameron Report also referenced complaints made by inmates about the lack of availability of reading material, something which is constitutionally mandated. They assert, “The suggestion that the lack of a reading culture amongst detainees, and the blanket statement that the majority of detainees “dropped out of school at lower grades” should somehow invalidate the complaint about reading material is offensive.  Those detainees who wish to have access to reading material are entitled to this.”

Other factors which SGJ lamented in their affidavit to the court were issues of staffing, assaults on inmates, ventilation, blankets, hot water and sanitation. All of which they say are not being given enough individual attention by the DCS because of a mentality that “Overcrowding is the main driving factor behind poor conditions of detention. Once it is reduced, this will ameliorate many of the concerns raised in the Cameron Report and the Applicant’s founding papers.”

Ruth Hopkins, in an article for the Mail and Guardian, spoke to a man named Mvelisi Sitokisi who, Hopkins notes, is also part of the Pollsmoor court case. Sitokisi was wrongfully accused of rape and sent to Pollsmoor Remand, where he awaited his trial for three months.  Sitokisi was denied access to his HIV medication and had to sleep on the floor of a cell. As a result he contracted TB, which also went untreated, and he nearly died. 

Sitokisi told Hopkins “I told warders I get a light stroke if I don’t take my [antiretroviral medication]. My family brought ARVs to the prison, but the warders said they cannot give it to me. They said they would take me to the clinic.” 

They never took Sitokisi to the clinic and he had a stroke, Hopkins reports, and the situation went from bad to worse, “They gave me just one blanket and I had to sleep on the floor. So I had to decide: Do I cover myself or do I sleep on the blanket with my clothes? In the cell, sick and healthy people are mixed. In the end, I caught TB.”

After he left Pollsmoor a community clinic put him back onto ARVs and provided TB medication. Sitokisi is now in much better health. 

The ruling by the Western Cape High Court and efforts to reduce overcrowding and the inhumane conditions which SGJ lament in their affidavit could prove a life-saver for many inmates who reside in Pollsmoor Remand detention facility, but it is clear that there is a lot to be done to get the facility up to proper living conditions. 

-Azarrah Karrim

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