COVID-19: Parole release numbers set to rise as lockdown-arrests continue

COVID-19: Parole release numbers set to rise as lockdown-arrests continue

News & Features

The number of COVID-19 infections in correctional facilities has been climbing steadily since April when Spotlight first reported on concerns raised by civil society organisations and prison rights activists over safety measures to prevent virus transmission in these facilities.

By Tuesday 16 June, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) confirmed in a media update that there were 1 622 COVID-19 infections in correctional facilities across the country. Of these infections, 623 were correctional staff members and 999 were inmates. The update also noted a total of 12 deaths.

Zia Wasserman, the National Prisoners Co-ordinator at Sonke Gender Justice, noted the rising number of infections and deaths with concern.

“The numbers (of COVID-19 cases) have definitely increased and seem to be increasing at quite a rapid rate. The positive cases among inmates are now higher than the positive cases among officials,” Wasserman said. “That’s concerning and we have to question whether sufficient PPE is being provided and sanitation and things like that.”

In response to questions from Spotlight, DCS spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo outlined measures in place in correctional facilities aimed at keeping staff and inmates safe against infection.

“Correctional Services does not only provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and deep-cleaning interventions in its facilities, but we have reinforced Infection Prevention Control in all our centres. We also took a decision to employ over 600 professional health care practitioners in order to assist with extensive screening and taking care of the sick,” he said.

Nxumalo said no DCS facility is without hand sanitiser and that their PPE stocks are sufficient.

Up to 19 000 prisoners could be released on parole

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in a statement on 8 May he had authorised “the placement on parole of selected categories of sentenced offenders as a measure to combat the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities”.

Ramaphosa said just under 19 000 prisoners could potentially be released.

“It was definitely a positive development. Civil society have been calling for it as an urgent intervention. It’s a step that has been taken by numerous countries around the world,” Wasserman said.

Justice Edwin Cameron, the Inspecting Judge for the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) told Spotlight that he also welcomed this development.

“JICS strongly affirms that bringing forward the parole dates of these prisoners will assist in alleviating some of the congestion in our correctional facilities,” he said.

Cameron had previously advised that such a step was necessary.

However, not all 19 000 who are being considered for parole, will necessarily be released.

“Because it’s a parole process, that means that certain conditions have to be in place before a person can be released, Wasserman explained. “So, these 19 000 they’ll be considered for release, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically be released.”

2 280 already released

Nxumalo confirmed 2 280 prisoners had so far been released on parole. “Placement of benefitting sentenced offenders commenced on 20 May 2020 and as on 10 June 2020, 2 280 offenders have been placed out,” he said.

According to Nxumalo, the “project” of releasing qualifying prisoners will run until 17 July.

“President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised that there be consideration of parole for selected low risk qualifying sentenced offenders who have or will reach their minimum detention periods within five years,” he explained.

Wasserman said among those qualifying for early parole are the elderly (those over 60), women, those with pre-existing health conditions and non-violent offenders.  She emphasised that no one sentenced for offences such as Gender Based Violence or murder would be considered for release.

Impact of the release

Cameron said the release of a significant number of prisoners could help manage COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities. “Any significant release of inmates will provide a salutary measure of decongestion, which is crucial to managing the threat of the contagion,” he said. “It is extremely difficult – and in some circumstances impossible – to maintain social distancing in correctional facilities. The provision of PPEs and maintaining a high standard of hygiene control are also more difficult in overcrowded facilities.”

In an announcement made shortly after the Presidency’s statement, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, pegged overcrowding in the country’s correctional facilities at an estimated 32,58%.  Should all the inmates being considered for parole be released, overcrowding could be reduced by about 12,15%, Lamola said.

Safura Abdool Karim, a senior researcher based at the Wits School of Public Health, weighed in on the potential impact the planned release could have on the overcrowding problem. “Prison overpopulation varies by prison,” she said. “(The impact) depends on where that release is happening.”

While she agreed that the development is good, Abdool Karim added that there is still more that needs to be done. “Advocates were calling for prisoners to be released, but now that that’s happened, we need to think about what the next step is,” she said. According to Abdool Karim, this includes the ability to social distance in prisons, improved hygiene, and access to PPE.

Impact of criminalising lockdown-related violations

Meanwhile, as prisoners are considered for parole, members of the public are arrested for lockdown-related offences.

Wasserman flagged this as another concern. She said these arrests often result in fines and which upon payment results in a criminal record or someone is detained.

“We’re seeing that people are paying fines and getting criminal records and the more vulnerable persons in society, some are being detained in remand facilities for violating the lockdown regulations… that’s incredibly concerning,” she said.

Sally Gandar, Head of Advocacy & Legal Advisor at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, explained why this is happening and who is most affected by it.

“There are criminalisation provisions in the lockdown Regulations. These provisions create criminal sanctions for the contravention of specific provisions in the Regulations – note that it is not all of the provisions that attract a criminal sanction,” she said.

If someone violates one of the lockdown regulations, they can be given a warning or be arrested, Gandar explained. There could also be the option of paying an admission of guilt fine, which leads to a criminal record.

“It is not the same type of fine as, for example, a traffic fine… the type of admission of guilt fine is one that would lead to a having a criminal record,” she said.

“Criminalisation provisions in response to a public health issue is certainly not an approach that embraces the ethos of reduction of harm to the individual or to society,” she added. (Spotlight earlier explored this issue of criminalisation during lockdown.)

272 324 arrests

Police Ministry spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, said between 27 March and 2 June, the police made 272 324 arrests for lockdown-related offences. Most arrests were in the Western Cape, which had just over 58 000, closely followed by Gauteng with just over 42 000 arrests.

Themba said of those arrested, 103 185 appeared in court.

She said when arrests are made precautions are taken to limit the chance of potentially spreading COVID-19 infections in police stations and holding cells.

“When an arrest takes place, a suspect will be put in a police van that has been sanitised, when he/she gets to a police station, an officer will check [their] temperature before [being] placed in cells. Police cells are being sanitised on a daily basis,” she said.

“Social distancing is also observed in police cells, [and] detainees must always wear masks,” Themba added.

When asked why some individuals may be arrested and detained instead of fined, Themba said this depends on the individual case.

“It all is case by case dependent and lesser charges; suspects can pay a fine and be released. Out of the number of arrests – 169 139 were released after paying a fine,” she said.

If someone cannot pay a fine it doesn’t mean they will remain in custody,  said Themba.

“Many are released on either police bail, free bail or admission of guilt. Those who remain behind bars are the ones charged with an additional crime over and above COVID-19 related charges,” she said.

But Gandar is concerned about the impact of this on asylum seekers, refugees, cross-border migrants and undocumented individuals.

“We believe that there is a risk that there will be a disproportionate impact on such groups of people. An example is that if someone’s documentation expired during the lockdown and they were arrested under one of the provisions, there is a (greater) likelihood that they will be detained than released because of the expired documentation,” she said.

Other vulnerable groups can also be impacted, she said. “Socio-economic status can render certain groups more vulnerable, and therefore more likely to be impacted by the criminalisation provisions.”

Independent Correctional Centre Visitors

Another development, this time a positive one according to Wasserman, is that JICS had assured Sonke Gender Justice that Independent Correctional Centre Visitors (ICCVs)  could resume their visits to prisons, starting in June.

“Hopefully they will be in the prisons and able to interact safely with the inmates to be able to record complaints and conditions of detention, which would be fantastic,” she said.

ICCVs are laypersons from the surrounding communities that JICS deploys at correctional facilities for regular visits to monitor and capture inmates’ complaints.

Spokesperson for the Inspectorate, Emerantia Cupido, confirmed this. “The ICCVs have been working remotely throughout (lockdown) levels 5 and 4, ensuring that JICS kept abreast of what is happening at the centres. Since the 1st  of June 2020, access was granted by DCS (Department of Correctional Services),” she said.

“All ICCVs have been provided with the correct personal protective gear and several have already (based on a phased-in approach throughout the provinces) been granted access to facilities,” Cupido added.

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