The union representing correctional services staff is worried that prison warders at Pietermaritzburg’s New Prison face increased health and safety risks due to overcrowding at the facility.
The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) has called for urgent intervention, saying a recent report by Judge Edwin Cameron painted a bleak picture of conditions at the Pietermaritzburg facility.
In a story published on Monday, The Witness reported on the failed attempts by the prison’s management to temporarily stop new inmates from being brought to the facility as part of measures to control the prison population.
The memorandum outlined the capacity crisis, particularly in the detainee remand unit in Medium Block A that houses double the number of inmates it was designed to hold.
However, the department this week retracted the circular stating that overcrowding was a challenge affecting facilities throughout the country and that the department was implementing measures to help alleviate the problem.
In June this year Judge Cameron, who was appointed by President Ramaphosa as an inspecting judge of Correctional Services, visited New Prison to conduct an oversight inspection.
He described the facility as “filthy, overcrowded and crumbling”.
Reacting to the judge’s findings and to last week’s withdrawn circular, Popcru provincial secretary, Nthabeleng Molefe, said the union has, for several years, been complaining to the department about the conditions at New Prison.
Of major concern to Popcru is that our members at the New Prison are struggling to cope with the prison numbers. When gang fights erupt in the prison cells, the lives of our members are in immediate danger as prisoners often use such situations to attack our members. In every shift, there are fewer and fewer correctional services officers manning the prison and yet the prisoner population continues to grow.
“We all know that our members are operating in a dangerous environment, where prison gangs get rewarded for attacking correctional services officers. And yet the department is doing nothing to protect our members,” she said.
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The awaiting trial section of the prison — which was designed to accommodate 350 prisoners, currently has 650 inmates.
Molefe said the situation was likely to get out of control in the month of December.
“December is the period when law enforcement officers arrest lots of people at roadblocks, gatherings and other places where people converge during the festive season. It’s the time when prisons are the busiest.
“For many years now, we have appealing to the department to employ more warders but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” she said.
In his report, judge Cameron said apart from overcrowding, the facility was also poorly maintained.
Mould grew on the kitchen ceiling, standing water covered the floor and tiles and equipment was broken. The building was also relatively recently constructed. Its condition is bad. Hot water has not been available for years. The plumbing is constantly blocked.
The condition of the prison, Cameron said, made it difficult for the prison warders to perform their duties.
“We don’t point fingers at DCS personnel. They, nearly as much as the inmates, suffer from all these defects,” he said.
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KZN Correctional Services Department regional spokesperson, Thulani Mdluli, said the department was “working hard” to address some of the challenges that have been identified.
“In an environment such as ours, one can’t expect things to run smoothly all the time. As we speak, some of the problems are being addressed. However, it will take a little longer to address some of the problems,” he said.