Our prisons are falling apart, says inspector

Lack of maintenance and disintegrating infrastructure put prisoners and staff at risk

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Judge Edwin Cameron describes the awful conditions he and his colleagues at the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services witnessed in recent prison visits. Illustration: Lisa Nelson

In recent months, with colleagues from the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), I have visited prisons in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Vryheid and Newcastle. In each, disturbing evidence of dilapidation confronted us. Leaks, floods, broken windows, unrepaired electric installations, stinking ablutions. It was dismal, the more so because all the degradation we saw could readily be repaired, but wasn’t.

This is an increasing problem for the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). Much of it can be traced to our massive but often-dysfunctional Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI). DPWI is responsible for most prison repairs – but too often seems unable to tackle even elementary maintenance. The walls, ceilings, roofs, electrical and water reticulation, hot-water systems and perimeter fences of too many correctional centres are in a grave state of unattended disrepair.

Why? Because of a cumbersome, often dead-end bureaucratic arrangement. All but the most trivial repairs, maintenance and construction requests have to be submitted to DPWI. And too often DPWI is unresponsive. Despite DPWI’s big fat budget (over R8-billion), DCS officials tell us of repeated calls they log, umpteen requests – all without outcome. Their requests are too often ignored. More often even, near-interminable delays choke the chance of getting anything done.

The visible result is awful. JICS on 15 June this year submitted a truly dismal list of undone doables to the Parliamentary Committee overseeing prisons. Our report describes nationwide instances of unsatisfactory construction, maintenance and repair. Yet we told Parliament only about the worst cases.

In March this year, we visited some of these centres in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

At Stanger, the whole prison structure is decrepit. The roofing consists of degrading asbestos – posing a serious health risk to inmates. Predictably, heavy rain causes the roof to leak.

Besides, the roof is very low, so there are no beds. Why? Because the inmates could stack them and escape through the leaky roof. This means they have to sleep on the floor – which plainly violates the promise in the Bill of Rights, and in the 1998 prisons’ statute (Correctional Services Act) that prisoners shall be held in conditions ‘consistent with human dignity’.

What awaited us at Durban Medium B prison at Westville was worse. Though the prison was built relatively recently, rain leaks right into the passages and kitchen. Paint peels and mildew grows from the walls, which have visible cracks that allow water in. The hospital unit and reception are regularly flooded. Kitchen equipment is dysfunctional. The hot water system never functions. In the overcrowded cells we saw, frequent water shortages exacerbate hygiene and sanitation problems. In one cell, with a maximum capacity of 33, we found no fewer than 81 inmates squeezed in. They all have to share a single toilet.

And these are all sentenced prisoners – not awaiting trial. So none of us can comfort ourselves that their stay is temporary, that their release on bail may be imminent.

And we don’t point fingers at DCS personnel. They, nearly as much as the inmates, suffer from all these defects.

Yet our visit the next day to Pietermaritzburg Medium A prison was even more disturbing. The building was also relatively recently constructed. Its condition is bad. Hot water has not been available for years. The plumbing is constantly blocked.

Overcrowding can be described by only one word: terrible. Single cells designed to accommodate two are crammed with three or four inmates. Communal cells are congested and unhygienic. The least loaded word is “filthy”.

There is a massive shortage of beds and mattresses, with some sleeping on the floor. Mould grew on the kitchen ceiling, standing water covered the floor and tiles and equipment was broken.

JICS has reported on all these conditions. We trust that effective action has supervened: but has it?

I can provide many examples, too many.

Port Shepstone: renovations are urgently needed to the dilapidated infrastructure; another hazardous asbestos roof; one of the units is a fire hazard – JICS found that the building should not be occupied by human beings and that it be evacuated as a matter of urgency – has this been done? We fear not.

Barkley East: paint peeling off walls, pipes constantly leaking, communal cells extremely overcrowded and unhygienic – one for 30 inmates had 84 crammed into it when we visited in March 2023; lack of beds obliged DCS personnel to combine all awaiting trialists into a single communal cell regardless of risks posed by communicable diseases.

Mount Fletcher, Mount Frere, Groenpunt, Flagstaff, Bizana, Thohoyandou, Pollsmoor, Vryheid – all had the same or similar problems.

The best facility I have seen is situated amidst the opencast coalmines south of Newcastle. It is Ekuseni, a well-run youth correctional centre, with personnel whose firm supervision is matched by flexibility and palpable caring. Yet the buildings – a former mine compound – are entirely unsuitable for housing inmates.

None of these conditions should be laid at the door of the Department’s personnel. They are as alarmed as JICS is by the grim state of infrastructure. They are desperate for relief.

One Head of Centre told us that they submit a monthly list of unattended defects to both the prisons Department and to DPWI. We were given a reference number. Nothing has been done.

So what’s up at DPWI? The chaotic succession of Directors-General plaguing many government departments has especially afflicted DPWI. A string of acting, disciplined and fired heads, combined with political instability resulting from Cabinet appointments, have hobbled its functionality.

So what is to be done? On a national scale, all the easy, ‘obvious’ things – principled, butt-kicking, corruption-free leadership from the top, with rigorous accountability and effective systems. Easy! Of course.

More practically, DPWI and DCS should agree to revert to what I understand was the previous policy – where centres had power to manage a larger range of maintenance issues themselves. Quick and inexpensive fixes can be implemented. The centralisation of maintenance authorisations seems to have complicated and delayed repairs.

At least, DPWI should appoint a top-level national official to deal specifically with prisons, and to impel their departmental workforce to do the necessary work.

Is this too much to expect? No. DPWI has proved perfectly capable of installing generators at Ministers’ homes and attending meticulously to their upkeep.

Correctional centres require no less.

It is something of a cliché, but like many clichés holds truth: Nelson Mandela, himself apartheid’s prisoner for 27 years, reminded us that you judge a nation not by how it treats the grand and the strong – but how it treats its most vulnerable.

That is why, under his presidency, the forward-looking 1998 prisons statute was enacted with its promises of dignity, education, training, rehabilitation and reintegration into communities.

Those promises are capable of fulfilment. By us. We can start with bricks, mortar, plumbing, roofs, ceilings, and windows.

This is not just for the dignity of the prisoners we incarcerate, it is also for our own dignity.

The author is the Judicial Inspector of Correctional Services.

Disclosure: Judge Cameron is a board member of GroundUp.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Prisons

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