More than 14,000 of the 19 000 inmates considered for release, to ease the spread of Covid-19 in correctional centres, would have appeared before the parole board within the next two years, said Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola.
He provided a political overview of his two departments to the portfolio committee on justice and correctional services on Monday.
“We have taken the critical step of releasing on parole 19,000 low-risk offenders to prevent inmates with comorbidities from contracting this silent killer, which has sadly claimed four lives in our centres already,” he said about the decision announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa little more than a week ago.
“The current Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted requirements to reduce the number of people incarcerated in correctional centres to a level which does not pose serious health and safety risks to officials, inmates and, ultimately, the communities into which offenders are released.”
He said they had learnt from experience from the positive tests in the Western Cape and East London that reducing overcrowding would help the system cope with the virus.
“Although, as we speak, this virus accounts for less than 1% of our prison population – yet we know that overcrowding is a threat that would undermine our efforts to combat this virus.
“This is certainly a short-term, but critical mechanism, to curtail the catastrophic effects of overcrowding. We are also looking at mechanisms to address the issue of awaiting trial detainees, who have been granted bail but who cannot afford to pay the amount set.”
After questions from MPs, he said 14,393 of the inmates earmarked for early parole would have appeared before a parole board within the next two years.
Lamola said Ramaphosa had been requested, within the terms of the legislation, to allow the department to “bring them [the inmates] for consideration of parole to the parole board”.
Altogether 4,530 inmates earmarked for the early parole would not have been eligible for parole within the next two years.
DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach asked what assistance was in place for the department’s unit for community corrections to deal with the 19,000 parolees, given that “they cannot cope with the current parolees”.
“Indeed, we have some challenges there,” Lamola conceded. He said discussions were under way on how to improve it.
He said infected inmates have been placed in isolation and given the appropriate medication.
“It is working, because some of them have recovered.”
He said a “huge number” had recovered, mentioning 40 in the Eastern Cape as an example.
Last week, the Department of Correctional Services said in a statement that it had begun a process of recalling parole board members to work from lockdown to start the process. They will be assisted by case management committees.
The offenders will be released in a phased process, starting with women, children and elderly inmates. They will be followed by offenders with shorter sentences and then those with longer sentences, the department said.
The inmates will be released over 10 weeks, said Lamola’s spokesperson Chrispin Phiri on Monday.
Speaking about the parole system in general, Lamola told the committee that he had heard the “outcries on the parole system”.
“We are busy reviewing it and we have adopted measures that will, in the interim, assist us to minimise the risk of re-offending.
“Our approach will also be victim-centric. Victims are often robbed of breadwinners through crime and we want to see how, as part of implementing restorative justice, victim empowerment is also integral.”