|Ronald Lamola, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, recently announced the release of 19, 000 incarcerated persons in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in South Africa’s prisons.
Despite the Department of Correctional Services’ (DCS) implementation of several prevention measures, we are seeing a consistent increase in positive cases of COVID-19 in the prison system.
Since the first case was reported on 6 April, DCS has to date reported 216 cases among officials and incarcerated persons. One of the key contributors, as confirmed by Lamola, is the “glaring impossibility of maintaining physical distancing in our centres due to overcrowding”.
In line with international human rights recommendations, many countries have released certain categories of detained persons in order to relieve the impact that overcrowding has on the COVID-19 rampage.
Sonke, as a co-coordinating member of the Detention Justice Forum, has consistently been calling on government to follow these recommendations, considering the high levels of overcrowding in South African prisons and the high risk of co-morbidity due to disproportionate rates of HIV and TB among incarcerated persons.
Therefore, we fully support the Minister’s announced release on parole of certain categories of non-violent low-risk detained persons.
This excludes those who have committed violent crimes, including murder, child abuse, gender-based violence and sexual offences. We applaud the prioritization of the most vulnerable to be released, including those detainees with underlying health problems, elderly (aged above 60 years) and female detainees with infants.
We would like to draw attention to the fact that the incarcerated persons will be released on parole – if the parole board decides that they qualify.
This means that careful consideration should be given to a variety of factors before a person is released, and that if released, they will still be serving the remainder of their sentences under the supervision of Community Corrections.
This process places primacy on the safety of the public, while at the same time affording detained persons the opportunity to rehabilitate and reintegrate into their communities.
Finally, we applaud the Minister’s recognition of South Africa’s large remand population. We hope that there will be a systematic review of those in pre-trial detention, and that practical measures will be implemented to assist those who cannot afford bail.
This is critical not only during the COVID-19 crisis, as poverty is not a crime.