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City prison running short of space

By Shorné Bennie

Courts urged to ‘temporarily stop’ referring new admissions as overcrowding reaches crisis levels.

Prison cell

Pietermaritzburg’s New Prison is facing a capacity crisis, particularly in the detainee remand unit in the Medium A block that now houses nearly double the number of inmates that the centre was actually designed to hold.

The problem reached crisis levels late last week when local prison officials sent out a memorandum urging the courts and police stations to “temporarily stop” referring new admissions from this Thursday.

However, the memorandum left the criminal justice system in a panic over what to do with suspects arrested for serious offences.

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The memorandum informed magistrates and station commanders that New Prison was recently visited by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) and the South African Human Rights Commission, which found that sections of the facility were overcrowded.

Part of their findings was that Pietermaritzburg Medium A is overcrowded and no longer complying with the minimum detention standards [Nelson Mandela Rules]. The correctional centre is overcrowded to the extent where it is infringing on the remand detainees’ basic human rights … These impacts negatively on the remand detainee’s health, hygiene and sufficient provision of nutritional needs,” stated the memorandum.

The report elaborated that the structure of the remand detainees housing unit was deteriorating rapidly due to overcrowding. The detainee remand unit also houses juvenile inmates with this section of the facility also currently housing double the number of inmates than it was intended to hold.

“The remand detainee unit has an approved bed space of 350 and currently more than 650 remand detainees are being housed in each unit. The temporary non-admission will be until the numbers of the remand detainees have decreased and are in line with the approved bed space.

“The decision is temporary to allow the correctional centre to pursue all interventions to decrease the overcrowding and manage the risk the centre is currently facing,” magistrates and station commanders were informed.

On Sunday, KZN regional commissioner for Correctional Services Mnikelwa Nxele told The Witness that overcrowding was a challenge being faced by correctional facilities around the country and that the memorandum has been withdrawn.

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Earlier this year Justice and Correctional Services minister, Ronald Lamola said the inmate population has increased by 7, 67% between the 2020/2021 and 2022/2023 financial years, constituting an increase of just over 10 800 inmates.

Replying to an Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) parliamentary question in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), Lamola said that in January this year the overall population stood at over 151 750 inmates in prison.

Lamola said the impact of overcrowding remained a challenge which continues to put strain on available resources, adding that external factors that have a direct influence on the inmate population levels include crime tendencies in society, the unemployment rate, the economy, an increase in effective measures to combat and prosecute crime, as well as impeding legislation on mandatory minimum sentences.

He said the Correctional Services department does not have control over the influx of inmates from courts.

Meanwhile, Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) said overcrowding in prisons remains a serious challenge for correctional officials. Speaking to the SABC, Popcru spokesperson, Richard Mamabolo, said overcrowding posed a risk to prison officials.

Our members are having challenges on a regular basis, because they have to look after a larger population of prison inmates and this result in … altercations where members are stabbed or even inmates themselves continue fighting among themselves.

“So these are the issues that the department needs to look into. However, we do have confidence in the current National Commissioner in the Department of Correctional Services, who has agreed to be engaging with all stakeholders in looking into what solutions can be implemented,” said Mamabolo to the SABC.

Three months ago President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a remission for non-violent offenders in South African prisons to alleviate the 43% overcrowding in the country’s 342 correctional centres and 218 community centres.

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More than 24 000 prisoners are likely to be released, including 3 000 people due to have been deported.

“Overcrowding poses a direct threat to inmate health, security, and management, and it could lead to a surge in gangsterism. More importantly, it hampers the department’s ability to provide development and rehabilitation programmes,” said Ramaphosa.