Banged up by a budget

12 May 2016 - 02:00 By AARTI J NARSEE and KAREN GWEE

Prison employees feel imprisoned themselves in a failing work environment held together only by "God's grace". They claim they are overworked, underpaid by R1.7-billion and work in dangerous conditions.These are just some of the problems listed in a recent Sonke Gender Justice report.The NGO visited Witbank prison, Johannesburg's female, and medium-A remand prisons, and Groenpunt's maximum security and juvenile prisons, in 2013.Johannesburg prison warders downed tools last week in a dispute over overtime pay and a danger allowance .Their grievances are echoed in the report, which details South African prisons' shocking "skeleton staff" problem.Findings include:Employees feel that because of staff shortages the prisons have avoided "major security breaches only by the grace of God";Many employees are looking for work that is safer, less stressful and better paid;White warders get "favourable" early shifts;Staff shortages worsened after shifts were increased from five to seven days a week in 2009;The Department of Correctional Services owed R1.7-billion in overtime to staff.Department spokesman Singabakho Nxumalo denied there were any pay discrepancies."There are no outstanding amounts for overtime," he said.The seven-day work weekwas introduced to tackle an "unpredictable and escalating overtime bill" to the tune of R500-million, but the shift system was under review, he said.The problems at the five facilities were reflected in prisons across the country, said Sasha Gear, project director of Just Detention International SA."Each prison is different, but the staff shortages seem to be a systemic problem."The Sonke Gender Justice report notes that the department's staffing structure has 60,000 posts. Nxumalo said the department was currently "restricted" to 42006 funded posts.Staff shortages combined with absenteeism and unplanned leave often result in too few employees trying to manage too many prisoners.This is potentially "very dangerous" because staff working alone can be held hostage by prisoners, the warders said.But the report highlighted that short-staffing's worst effects were inflicted on prisoners, whose human dignity was compromised.Prisoners are locked up for longer and deprived of their daily hour of exercise.Short-staffing has "all sorts of knock-on effects", said Gear."For example, staff are less likely to pick up on dynamics between inmates which might signal abuse or a brewing conflict."This has implications for preventing sexual violence, she said...

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