The South African Sentenced and Awaiting Trial Prisoners Organisation (Sasapo) is threatening to take Justice and Correctional Services Minister, Ronald Lamola, to court for violation of human rights over the delay in the release of at least 19 000 prisoners as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in May.
The petty crime offenders were set to be freed in a bid to control the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. But the organisation claims only a handful have been released.
Sasapo claims that thousands of critically ill prisoners, mothers with babies and those who have met the conditions of the correctional services release programme are still languishing behind bars without any explanation from the department. The organisation is calling for the release of prisoners with chronic illnesses, over the age of 60, and facing death sentences due to the rising COVID-19 fatalities.
Chairperson Phindile Zweni says : “We have decided that we are now going to take the Minister back to court. He defied the constitutional rights of the inmates; human rights of these inmates have really been violated. We want to know why the minister doesn’t want to come to the party and to speak about why he doesn’t want to release these categories of people. Every day 2, 3 people are dying in prison the stats that they are giving to the media are incorrect, totally incorrect.”
Zweni says the delay in the release of these prisoners will result in more prison breaks.
“A week before the outbreak of the awaiting trial inmates at Malmesbury Correctional Centre, I was informed of the planned escapes. I warned the office of the national commissioner. It’s going to happen at all the centres, even at other centers, inmates are now going to try and escape. They fear for their lives. Three people sleeping on one bed, there’s no social distancing, there’s no food, there’s no PPE in prison.”
The Justice and Correctional Services department has refuted the claims and attributes the delay to the pandemic. Spokesperson Chrispin Phiri has accused Sasapo of misleading the nation with their unfounded allegations. He says the number of released prisoners stands at 7 000.
“To date, of the 19 000 prisoners earmarked for release, approximately, 7 000 have been released by correctional facilities. The delay is occasioned by the fact that COVID-19 is everywhere in our society, so even parole board members themselves are affected by COVID-19. So COVID-19 has caused such a major disruption in the way we conduct our jobs , in the way we conduct our protocols, it has been difficult for them to do this expeditiously, but the work is still ongoing.”
Phiri is also refuting claims that the department is concealing the actual number of COVID-19 deaths in prisons.
“The Ministry and the department approve a statement that goes out to the public, which informs the public about the daily statistics of COVID-19. The Minister appears before parliament, he tables a report to parliament and explains o our communities through accountability processes of parliament, what is the state of COVID-19 in our facilities and what we are doing with regards to the COVID-19 parole dispensation.”
In the video below, most prisoners qualifying for COVID-19 parole were to be released in the next two years: