Systemic problems at St Albans Prison were brought to the attention of the United Nations this year and a determined lawyer has taken a 10-year battle for justice for alleged assault victims at the jail to the Constitutional Court.
The prison is in lockdown this week after a riot and violent clashes on Boxing Day which left three inmates dead and 13 warders injured, raising the alarm once again about poor conditions not only at the Port Elizabeth facility but prisons countrywide.
A network of organisations under the umbrella body, Detention Justice Forum, submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in September saying that South African prisons “remain extremely overcrowded”.
It also warned of a “culture of impunity” at St Albans. In a sense, the specific reference to St Albans is a reportback to the human rights committee, which had earlier issued a number of directives to South Africa to clean up its act but which the forum said in its latest report had not all yet been actioned.
The UN had been alerted to the situation at St Albans in 2008 after no action was taken against officials following the alleged abuse of 231 inmates in 2005. Yet, an investigation by the authorities was still incomplete, according to the forum, and the National Prosecuting Authority had failed to prosecute a single case of torture.
Ariane Nevin, national prisons specialist of Sonke Gender Justice, which is a member of the forum, said that the human rights committee would complete its report in April.
“We are aware of the difficulties on the job for correctional services officials, but the fundamental point is that they can’t act with impunity,” she said.
Meanwhile, Egon Oswald – the lawyer behind a decade-long and thus far failed test case for civil damages claims by the 231 inmates against the minister of justice and correctional services – said that he was not surprised at the latest incident at the prison.
“A great injustice begets further injustice. If you don’t deal with the problem effectively and if you get lucky in court, this is what happens. There is overcrowding, a lack of funding, inadequate staffing and corruption. So what happens? To a certain extent the failure to deal with the matter leads to a predictable outcome.”
After being approached by families of victims in this week’s incident, Oswald has sent the prison and minister a letter of demand insisting that all prisoners get medical attention and that the matter be investigated “properly and impartially”.
He said yesterday that he had not given up after losing a damages claim by the first two litigants in the Port Elizabeth High Court earlier this year. Now an application to appeal the judge’s decision has been lodged with the Constitutional Court.
In its submission to the high commissioner for human rights, the forum said that the current mechanism of prisons oversight, the judicial inspectorate for correctional services “suffers from two fundamental defects, namely the inadequate legal definition of its functions and powers, and a lack of legal, operational and financial autonomy”.
The inspectorate was financially operationally dependent on the department of correctional services, leaving it “vulnerable to political influence and institutional capture”.
According to the correctional services ministry, the riots at St Albans, which is one of the “big five” of South Africa’s prisons, began after 33 inmates started attacking officials with sharp objects and self-made knives.
“This incident is a sharp reminder of the many life threatening conditions under which no less than 38 000 correctional officials perform their daily duties in all our 243 correctional centres,” said deputy minister Thabang Makwetla.
In 2014, it was reported that about 200 inmates were allegedly subjected to mass-beatings, electric shock and torture during a midnight search for cell phones and contraband.
The justice ministry had not responded to queries at the time this report was published.
In a statement, the Congress of the People said that overcrowding and staff shortages were the main causes of the latest violence, and that the safety of both prison officials and inmates needed to be prioritised.