Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Imprisoned before proven guilty

This is an issue which lies close to my heart. Long before I lost my youngest son in October 2010, due to a suspected drug overdose (we’re still waiting for the lab results), I became extensively involved in the business of rehabilitating drug-addicted kids. One of my tasks was to provide moral support to teenagers and young adults, who were sitting behind bars as awaiting trial detainees (ATD’s) at the Pretoria Central Prison, commonly known as New Lock Prison. Many of the youngsters I visited there came from well-to-do families, but in most cases their own families had written them off, and wanted nothing to do with them, hence the reason why we started the Adopt-A-Drug-Addict project, and why I started placing adverts on these pages.

The heroine addicts were the worst kind to deal with, but, oddly enough, landing in prison was often a blessing in disguise for them, as it kept them out of reach from the scumbag drug lords – thus saving their lives on many occasions. Although illegal drugs of all sorts, especially dagga (tonnes of the stuff), are readily available inside the prison walls, the deadly drug heroine is not that easy to come by inside New Lock, and most definitely not in the juvenile section.

I can share many stories with readers about my experiences during those visits, and the feedback I received from our ‘adopted’ addicts, but I’ve always felt hesitant to do so as many of the stories may sound totally outrages and farfetched. I must also add that not all the stories are bad though, and there are also some success stories. Sometimes prison is the last resort left when young adults continue to live recklessly, to the point where they endanger themselves and others.

All I’m prepared to say at this point in time is that the majority of heroine addicts I dealt with had been tested as HIV/Aids positive, and believe me when I say - they did not contract the virus through dirty needles. During the Soccer World Cup in June 2010 the juvenile awaiting trial section at New Lock got so overcrowded that the Department of Correctional Services had no choice but to move juveniles to other sections in the facility, where they came into contact with vicious hardened criminals that had already been sentenced. At times I had to wait almost three hours before they could locate the whereabouts of the detainees, and then I was only allowed 5 minutes visiting time – often with a visibly scared and traumatized human being, whom I couldn’t hear speak due to the chaotic babbling racket going on around us.

The chaos at courts is another story. On average, awaiting trial juveniles can remain in solitary confinement for 3 months, while their cases drag on and are postponed for the most trivial, most pathetic reasons, as the below article by Jeremy Gordin will, among other things, also reveal.

One last thing, in case you’re wondering… The teenagers and young adults I dealt with were all White. First time offenders, usually for possession of illegal drugs - or theft to support their addiction, were psychologically not prepared for the hell that was awaiting them in New Lock. The prison officials usually split these youngsters up into separate blocks (not small cells) – but blocks that can accommodate up to 100 or more detainees, where they become a nameless whitey among hordes of Black savages. I say no more.


Imprisoned before proven guilty

By Jeremy Gordin
23 August 2011

Jeremy Gordin on the plight of South Africa's awaiting trial detainees.

As more and more delegates asked where the government's white paper on remand detainees might be found, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the Minister of Correctional Cervices, turned to an aide, Loyiso Jafta, demanding to know where it was.

Jafta replied that the white paper was not yet ready because it was awaiting the release of funds so it could be properly edited.

The minister was not amused. "This paper should have been ready. This is government at its worst," she proclaimed. "I am the minister, I am supposed to have the power to make things happen - now look at this."

This small public spat took place at last week's conference, "Remand Detention: Challenges and Solutions", organised at Wits University by the Wits Justice Project, a teaching project operating as part of the university's investigative journalism programme.

Mapisa-Nqakula was the keynote speaker at the conference. Other speakers included Deputy Minister of Justice Andries Nel, the inspecting judge of prisons Deon van Zyl, and Vincent Smith, chairman of Parliament's portfolio committee on correctional services.

Probably no one except Mapisa-Nqakula will ever know to what extent her expostulation was planned - so as to present her, as much as anyone else, as a victim of the dead hand of governmental bureaucracy.

Whatever the case, it set the tone for the proceedings and information about South Africa's remand detainees flooded into the open.

The plight of remand detainees or awaiting trial detainees (ATDs) - people held in detention while awaiting the conclusion of their trials - is not a state secret.

Yet little is known about prison conditions and about ATDs. This is first because most South Africans, understandably angry and fearful about violent crime of all kinds, are not sympathetic towards those who have been arrested, even if they have not yet been proven guilty.

Second, the Department of Correctional Services is defensive and secretive about what it's doing and what is happening in jails.

This being the case, people tend to forget that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and that, of the about 150 000 people in the country's jails, one third - or 49 000 - ATDs remain innocent.

What's more, more than 2 000 of these detainees have been in prison for more than two years, with 73 people having spent between five and seven years in detention.

It gets worse when you realise that, on average, most criminal cases take only five days' actual court time to finalise; many cases are eventually withdrawn; and the charges against about 40 percent of these ATDs are dropped.

Making everything worse is that ATDs are the responsibility of the police, not of correctional services. ATDs are thus the stepchildren of the system. What this means is that ATDs have no rights - no clothes but their own, no rehabilitative courses, inadequate medical facilities, and no reading material.

And these problems are the least of their worries. The biggest problem is that the remand facilities - the jails in which they are held - are dangerously overcrowded.

According to Judge van Zyl, the average level of occupation of the country's prisons is 139 percent. Nineteen correctional centres are considered "critically" overcrowded, with occupation levels of 200 percent and over.

Sun City's Medium A - the ATD holding facility - is 246 percent overcrowded. This means that a building designed to hold 2 630 has in it 6 480 human beings.

What this in turn means is there's a lack of physical safety in detention (which is a polite way of saying rape is common - and potentially deadly due to HIV/Aids); that, because there are too few warders for such a large prison population, ATDs are generally locked up for 23 hours a day; and that gangs terrorise the inmates.

In short, thousands of citizens who are still considered innocent are being deprived of their rights, often in appalling circumstances, and for periods of time that are clearly unconstitutional.

As Smith reminded the conference, the Bill of Rights guarantees everyone "the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause" and that the constitution guarantees everyone detained the right to conditions consistent with human dignity, including at least exercise and the provision, at state expense, of adequate accommodation, nutrition, reading material and medical treatment.

There are a number of reasons why there are so many ATDs, and why they are being held so long.

These range from the fact that many ATDs are too poor to afford bail (even if it is only R200), to shoddy police investigations, arrest on insufficient grounds and, above all, the country's clogged courts, in which it can take months to have a case concluded due to a shortage of stenographers and interpreters, poor legal representation, lost documents, and long postponements.

Nel told the conference he often makes unannounced visits to courts. On a visit to a magistrate's court, the deputy minister saw how an entire court could grind to a halt if all of the components but one were present. At this court, magistrates, lawyers, the accused, clerks, victims and investigating officers were all waiting.

The cause of the legal paralysis? The person who operated the recording device was absent. Then during tea time, the orderly responsible for unlocking cells disappeared...

Mapisa-Nqakula conceded that "remand detention had for a long time been the stepchild of the department", but that she believed the new Correctional Matters Amendment Act 5 of 2011, signed by the president but yet to be promulgated, would help considerably.

Mapisa-Nqakula said the new act would help establish a "management regime" for vulnerable remand detainees, including women, those with health problems and the elderly. The act would also, she said, "address" the issue of abuse by other detainees, though she did not expand on this subject; enable the courts to review ongoing remand detention when a detainee was terminally ill or severely incapacitated; separate first-time offenders from repeat offenders; and make it mandatory for the courts to review the situation of a person still being held after 24 months. She said also that by mid-2012 remand detainees would be provided with uniforms.

So the talking began last week. What remains now is for what the Wits Justice Project's Ingrid Cloete called "the wide and significant gap between the legal position and the factual one for ATDs" to be well and truly closed.

Jeremy Gordin is the director of the Wits Justice Project. This article first appeared in the Saturday Star.

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Anonymous said... .....Click here to refresh this blog

Having a young son myself, reading that has really made me appreciate how lucky we were to get out of SA in its current state. Its heartbreaking to say the least what those kids have to endure. Strangely it was my biggest fear while in SA and that was for either my son or myself to be locked up. That in itself shows how distorted absolutely wrong things are in SA.

Foxie said... .....Click here to refresh this blog

I can only thank God that my threesome are all adults between 38 - 52, having grown into responsible adults. Yes, drugs were available during the 1970's when they were still at school, but none of them ever had any inclination to experiment with what was then available - mainly dagga at the time. What worries me is the fact that my six litle great-grandkids face a very uncertain future in a world that had been turned upside-down by thugs and terrorists whose only aim in life is to make a fast buck by peddling with the most dangerous substances imaginable. If I had millions, I'd give each of my grandkids who are the parents of these beautiful babies at least R5-million and tell them to get the hell out of this k-fuxated country and take their babies to a place where they can grow up in safety.

We can only pray to God to protect all our loved ones against these terrible influences...

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