Inmates let down by system

Namhla Tshisela

Namhla Tshisela

Magistrates are worsening the problem of overcrowding in South African jails because they are not using their discretion to release awaiting-trial prisoners, some of whom spent years behind bars for petty offences.

"The mindset of some of the magistrates needs to change.

"They should understand that when someone appears in court they can use their discretion in deciding whether a person should be kept in jail or not," said Dennis Bloem, chairman of the parliamentary committee on Correctional Services.

Bloem said 52662 prisoners were awaiting trial in South Africans jails.

He was responding to claims by the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (Sapohr) that many awaiting prisoners "languished" in jail because they could not afford bail.

Lengthy postponements by the courts were also to blame.

This followed a hunger strike by inmates awaiting trial at Kroonstad Prison in the Free State on Tuesday.

Bloem said the numbers of protesting inmates had dropped from 130 during the week to 16 on Saturday.

Sapohr president Golden Miles Bhudu said the law provided that magistrates can release "petty offenders" on warning or reduce bail if they could not afford it.

"More than 30000 awaiting trial prisoners who have been granted bail for petty offences are still in jail because they cannot afford to pay as little as R500," said Bhudu.

Bloem said that cases were also delayed by changing lawyers and because minor cases were not tried speedily but were "postponed for further investigations".

Bhudu said his organisation supported the prisoners' strike because it highlighted a "criminal justice system that is in disarray".

National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Tladi Tladi said delays in court proceedings were due to many factors and that cases needed to be assessed individually.

Tladi said it was "unfortunate" that inmates waited too long for their cases to be heard.

He urged people to report prosecutors who were not doing their jobs to the NPA so that "necessary action" can be taken against them.