Pretoria – The Centre for Human Rights has called on government to act swiftly and release a limited number of inmates to enable the required social distancing in prisons.
This after the Department of Justice and Correctional Services said that the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases among inmates had reached 111 by Monday. The Centre of Human Rights and the universities of Pretoria and Wits, as well as the Centre for Applied Legal Studies said government should heed this call to avoid prisons becoming killing fields.
According to the organisations, the regulations issued under the Disaster Management Act focused on limitations on visits to correctional centres and a directive that “an accused person arrested for a petty offence must be released and warned to appear in court on a future date”.
Director of the Centre for Human Rights Frans Viljoen said the organisations were not advocating for a blanket release of incarcerated people, but for a balance to be struck. This meant government needed to consider releasing trial-awaiting detainees who do not pose a threat to the community, inmates who have been sentenced for petty offences, inmates convicted of offences that posed no threat to society and whose sentences will end in the upcoming months.
“It is imperative, in light of the contagious nature of Covid-19, that the government takes more measures to ensure that South African correctional centres do not become killing fields for the virus.”
Inmates were at an elevated risk of contracting the coronavirus because they are placed on permanent constricted lockdown, and access to fresh air and ventilation was often lacking.
Spokesperson for the department Singabakho Nxumalo said they preferred not to comment because a confidential document in this regard had been leaked to the media.
Early this week, two inmates were injured during a clash with officials at the Baviaanspoort Correctional Centre during a protest against lockdown measures.
Prisoner rights activist Golden Miles Bhudu blamed the department for the incident, saying it had failed to eliminate chronic overcrowding, which made inmates feel unsafe.
The department, however, blamed Bhudu and others for inciting inmates to protests against Covid-19 lockdown measures.
By James Mahlokwane