Release prisoners to meet health mandate: Covid-19 appeal

25 March 2020 - 08:20 By TimesLIVE
A poster advises the public about coronavirus.
A poster advises the public about coronavirus.
Image: Esa Alexander/Sunday Times

The department of correctional services should prioritise the release of elderly detainees, especially those with underlying health conditions, as well as people serving short sentences for non-violent crimes.

This is according to Sonke Gender Justice, commenting on the health and wellbeing of those incarcerated and working within the prisons during Covid-19.

“Once the state deprives a person of their liberty, it is obliged to provide a duty of care,” the group said in a statement.

It cited the Nelson Mandela Rules, which state: “Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, and should have access to necessary health care services free of charge, without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status.”

Social distancing and handwashing are measures that are practically impossible to follow  in prison, said Sonke. “Not only are almost all of our prisons overcrowded, many of them also lack sufficient running water and hygiene materials.”

Halting visits to prisoners, which government has announced as a Covid-19 precaution, is an insufficient measure, it said.

“First, the ban technically means that detained persons are unable to see their legal representatives, which is a serious violation of their rights. Second, a lack of oversight visits and reporting (by bodies such as the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services and judges) may have serious implications for the safety of detained persons and the accountability of prison officials. Third, visits by family members and friends are vital for the mental health of detained persons and can prevent violence, and are also a source of food and other essential resources that are not sufficiently provided by the prison (such as bedding, sanitary items, and medication).

“If government is going to continue with this prison visit moratorium for the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak, it needs to ensure that incarcerated persons’ means of contacting the outside world are increased and more accessible (for example phone, e-mail, post, video calls). However, it is recommended that government take even more proactive steps to curb the spread of the disease, by decreasing the number of people in prisons.” 

Sonke proposed releasing non-violent offenders, processing awaiting-trial detainees and encouraging judges to use alternatives to incarceration.


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