- An unofficial death sentence?
Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys
South African prisons are deemed to be the most overcrowded correctional facilities in Africa due to their inadequate capacity to safely and securely house the number of offenders in the country. The prison system in post-1994 South Africa has been characterised by a range of persistent challenges such as corruption and gross human rights violations. While the Constitution now places radically different demands on the prison system, there are still a lot of problems which include the problems associated with the overcrowding of South Africa's more than 240 prisons.
Prison overcrowding has been a long-standing problem. Since 1965 (the earliest date for which information is available) there has been a shortfall between the demand for prison space and the available accommodation (Muntingh, 2012). In January 1995, eight months after the ANC government took office, the official capacity of South African prisons was 96 361, while the actual prison population was 116 846. The prisons were at 121% capacity. Nearly ten years later, on 31 July 2004, the official capacity stood at 114 821 and the actual prison population at 184 806 inmates. During that ten-year period, the prison population in South Africa had grown by 58% and the levels of overcrowding had increased by 40% (Steinberg, 2005).
Possible reasons for the initial increase
What brought about the drastic increase during the first ten years of our democracy? Steinberg (2005) stresses that the justice system was not prosecuting or convicting more offenders - rather, between 1991 and 2000, the number of prosecutions dropped by 23%, while the number of convictions dropped by 19%. The reality was not that more people were being incarcerated; the problem was that they were staying there for longer. Remand detainees contributed to the problem: on 31 January 1995, there were 22 282 remand detainees and by 31 January 2001, the figure had increased almost threefold to 61 563. The number of remand detainees began to decline in the 2000s and by July 2004 the figure had dropped to 48 306. The problem was mainly successfully managed by using release policies. During 2000, the power which is granted to the relevant Minister and the President by section 66 of the Correctional Services Act 8 of 1959 was used to release 8451 remand detainees who had been granted bail of less than R1000, but who had been unable to pay it. It was argued that these detainees had been granted bail by a court and therefore a court had decided in principle that they did not pose any danger to their communities should they be released.
Despite the remand detainee prison population declining, the sentenced population began to increase dramatically from 88 301 by 31 July 1998 to 136 500 by 31 July 2004. This sudden and dramatic increase in sentenced prisoners can be traced to policy decisions which mandate minimum sentences for various crimes. The legislation mandates life sentences for several crimes, including premeditated murder, the murder of a law enforcement official, serial rape, gang rape and the rape of a child. The legislation also mandates minimum sentences for crimes including robbery with aggravating circumstances, drug trafficking, the smuggling of ammunition, firearms and explosives and rape (Steinberg 2005).
According to the annual report of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) for 2015/2016, the prison population included 113 691 sentenced males and 3036 sentenced females, totalling 116 727, as well as 44 100 unsentenced males and 1157 unsentenced females, totalling 45 257, by 31 March 2016. This brings the total number of inmates to 161 984 while the total approved bed space (capacity) is 119 134.
A global problem
Prison overcrowding is a global problem. By March 2015, South Africa had the 11th highest prison population in the world with 159 241 inmates (including remand detainees). This is according to the World Prison Brief released by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research who found that the USA is at the top of the rankings with 2.2 million prisoners in its criminal justice system. The USA has 4575 confinement facilities with an official holding capacity of 2 157 769. China has the second highest prison population in the world, with 1.65 million prisoners, followed by Russia with 644 700 prisoners (https://businesstech.co.za/news/general/ 102821/south-africas-prison-population-vs-the-world).
Reasons of overcrowding
Shabangu (2006) gives a number of causes for overcrowding:
The majority of correctional facilities are still old-fashioned designs where inmates are being housed in communal cells which were built to cater for between 20 and 50 inmates. Once beds are removed and inmates are allowed to occupy floor space without beds, this facilitates overcrowding.