Prisoners call for change in legislation, lament minister's powers over 'lifers'

Department of correctional services rubbishes reports of hunger strike

22 November 2023 - 19:23
By Shonisani Tshikalange and Rorisang Kgosana
Prisoners have complained of being deprived access to formal education and vocational training. Stock photo.
Image: Prisoners have complained of being deprived access to formal education and vocational training. Stock photo.

The department of correctional services has rubbished reports of prisoners embarking on a huge hunger strike across the country.

In a memorandum of notice of strike seen by TimesLIVE dated October 25 from inmates sentenced to life who complained of unreasonable delay and unreasonable denial for parole placement by the minister of correctional services, Ronald Lamola, and the national council of correctional services.

According to the memorandum, the department is failing to consider and place inmates who have complied with the provision of section 136 of the Correctional Services Act. It says the department is failing to follow the ruling of the Constitutional Court judgment in the seminal case of Janusz Walus in considering inmates who are in that category.

“We have lost hope in the leadership of the minister of correctional services and we have lost confidence in the national council of correctional services [NCCS] on the grounds that the rule of law is not implemented.

“With due respect, we humbly request that the powers given to the minister in terms of section 78 of the Correctional Services Act 111 of 1998 be taken from him and be given back to the judiciary as it was before this section was amended, and that the structure of the NCCS be accountable to parliament and to the chief justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa,” reads the memorandum.

The inmates want the minister to be removed from considering inmates sentenced to life incarceration on the grounds that he is a member of the executive and part of the legislature and there is therefore no separation of powers. He also presides as an adjudicator in his department.

The inmates said due to these reasons they have decided to embark on a hunger strike until Lamola is removed as a person who can consider inmates for parole placements and legislation is made that a member of the executive cannot be a decision-maker in his administrative body.

According to the inmates, it is the first phase of the inmates' operation on the hunger strike. 

There are also reports that the hunger strike is also in response to the recent court order allowing them to use laptops inside jail. In September, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) ruled in favour of prisoners' rights to make use of laptops while being imprisoned.

Popcru spokesperson Richard Mamabolo said from the SCA judgment it is quite clear that the use of laptops will be for those who are in the process of “self-cultivation” and will be used without a modem. 

This time bomb has been ticking for quite some time. It is a ticking nuclear bomb — and soon it will explode at a time when authorities least expect it to explode
Golden Miles Bhudu, Sapohr spokesperson

“There would be a need for them to submit their laptops for regular checks by the officials of the correctional services,” he said.

“For us as the union, we know that the core mandate of the department is rehabilitation, and any inmate who would like to engage in any form of self-cultivation, it's a move that we welcome.

“Since that judgment, we know the department will be reviewing the policy within the next 12 months. Any form of protest or any form of hunger strike from our side would be premature, but some measures are being taken up.”

Mamabolo said there are solutions in place.

“There are measures that will in the long run ensure that we get our correctional facilities into order. One of the challenges we recently had was the fire incident that happened in Kutama-Sinthumule, where over 3,200 beds had to be reallocated to different other prisons, adding onto the burden of overcrowding,” he said.

However, in response, the department of correctional services dismissed these claims.

“We have noted desperate attempts by some who call themselves activists trying hard to instigate inmates. Their programme is not taking off, and they are now using the media in an attempt to gain prominence and access a wider reach. All you hear is grievances, yet nothing of substance,” said the department's spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo.

He said the department remains focused on “fulfilling our responsibilities, and correctional centres have systems in place in terms of operations”.

South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (Sapohr) spokesperson Golden Miles Bhudu said the strike, which was expected to start on Monday might, may not have gotten off the ground but is a disaster waiting to happen.

“This time bomb has been ticking for quite some time. It is a ticking nuclear bomb — and soon it will explode at a time when authorities least expect it to explode,” he said.

Bhudu said the calls for the national hunger strike was proposed by the inmates.

“It came from inside the belly of the beast, it's not something that we as an organisation suggested, let alone proposed. It is them who decided that as of the 20th they will have to do something to attract the attention of the authorities, including the attention of the president's office and the community at large. So from where I am sitting, I haven't heard anything and I am not surprised that no information has leaked,” he said.

In another handwritten memorandum from at least 104 inmates from the Mangaung correctional centre in Bloemfontein, dated October 16, the inmates complain about unnatural deaths of inmates, lack of access to medical doctors, torture of inmates and atrocious conduct by the prison security.

Further, they complain about a lack of urgency.

“Some, if not many, inmates are being deprived access to formal education and vocational training, access to justice, lack of safety for inmates, lack of resources and facilities to access justice misplacement of medical evidence,” the memo states.

An inmate at Boksburg prison serving life, who has been in for 19 years, confirmed that there was a hunger strike from Monday, but said it is related to issues of infrastructure (leaking water) and lifers wanting parole.

He said it ended on Wednesday at the prison and the leaking water issue has been resolved.

Other prisoners at Johannesburg and Boksburg prisons confirmed their knowledge of the strike for lifers to be granted parole.