by AKANI CHAUKE
JOHANNESBURG – THE imminent release of 19 000 inmates to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in South African prisons, could turn out to be a double-edged sword.
This is aprevailing sentiment in a country that is synonymous with violent crime and whose economy is enduring its worst decline in years.
Convicts will be set free on parole as South Africa battles an escalating pandemic that has not spared the country’s congested jails.
More than 200 individuals, including inmates and officials from the Department of Correctional Services have been infected.
The problem is most prevalent in the Eastern Cape (125 cases). Two have died.
The Western Cape, which overall is the worst affected by the COVID-19 in South Africa, had 72 cases in its prisons, including a single death.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced the release of the thousands of inmates to deal with the crisis.
He said inmates convicted of petty crimes would qualify for the parole.
Those convicted of serious offences such as murder, sex crimes, gender-based violence and child abuse do not qualify.
There have been mixed reactions to the announcement by the head of state.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) claimed that while South Africa’s overcrowded prisons created unique challenges for the Department of Correctional Services in the fight against COVID-19, the government had not adequately explored all of its options in this regard.
“This release of prisoners may lead to a greater humanitarian crisis than that which it (government) is attempting to avoid,” Glynnis Breytenbach, DA Shadow Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, said.
Concern has been raised that some prisoners to be released do not have families or homes, while those with this privilege would return to households that are battling to make ends meet because of unemployment.
Crime in South Africa is partly blamed on unemployment.
“These factors will increase the possibility of re-offending, contributing to South Africa’s high recidivism rate. It also adds a high social burden on already struggling families and communities,” Breytenbach argued.
However, the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (SAPOHR) has welcomed the move by government.
It has in addition appealed for the expansion of the scheme to include other inmates that do not qualify under the amnesty.
Miles Bhudu, spokesperson of the SAPOHR called for the release of terminally-ill inmates.
He argued some individuals were languishing behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
Ronald Lamola, the Minister of Justice, said due process would be followed in releasing the inmates.
Parole boards, he assured, will scrutinize all individuals pending their release.
“The releases will be done in the interest of justice to society and the victims,” the minister assured.
Lieutenant-General Khehla Sitole, the Commissioner of Police, guaranteed citizens of their safety when prisoners were released.
“We have established some avenues to monitor these particular prisoners,” the police chief said.
Police and stakeholders would also initiate a project to ensure inmates are reintegrated into society in an manner devoid of stigma.
South Africa has the unenviable tag as one of the global hotspots of violent crime.
It has in recent months experienced a surge of crimes such as rape and gender-based violence, mostly targeted at women.
There is also concern over the sporadic violence pitting the majority local blacks against their counterparts from the African continent.
During the ongoing lockdown against COVID-19, schools have been burgled and learning material stolen.
Liquor stores have also been looted following the ban on the sale of alcohol during the period.
– CAJ News