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SA's prisons could run out of beds as crime rate surges

The department of correctional services says the growing crime rate could mean their is not enough space in their prisons for convicts.
The department of correctional services says the growing crime rate could mean their is not enough space in their prisons for convicts.

The growing crime rate and rise in life sentences meted out to offenders may mean that there won't be enough beds for criminals in SA’s prisons. 

The department of correctional services has conceded that it is worried about over-crowding which is on a steady rise, as evidenced by the latest shocking crime statistics. 

The department is forced to be creative to deal with this dilemma and is looking at a host of measures to ease the “stubborn pressures of incarceration, forever increasing due to high crime levels”.

The department believes that the judiciary should consider other forms of punishment instead of sending all criminals to jail.

For example, less serious crimes should lead to a sentence of community correctional supervision, the department said.

It also wants a debate on whether incarceration is the most effective form of rehabilitation for some offenders. 

Correctional services wants to review the cases of people who were arrested for minor offences and sentenced to fines, but were jailed because they could not afford the fine. 

Department spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said they have to be prepared for the possibility of incarceration numbers exceeding the department’s bed capacity. 

“Even more pressing is that overcrowding challenges could become a norm in some correctional centres if not managed properly. What cannot be undermined is that overcrowding in correctional facilities could lead to poor conditions, thus making it difficult to create and maintain humane conditions, which will adversely hamper the mandate of rehabilitating inmates,” he said.

Earlier this year justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola told parliament that as at March 31 2019, there were 162,875 inmates against an accommodation capacity of 118,572 bed spaces. 

That meant that prisons across the country were 37% overcrowded. 

But because correctional services has no legal powers to refuse the detention of inmates, overcrowding is inevitable. 

A huge concern is the number of prisoners awaiting trial in prisons in the metros, as a result of the sluggish state of the criminal justice system. 

“High crime levels in the country are a concern to everyone. DCS has been working on increasing the bed space in order to relieve pressure from the overcrowded facilities, especially those in the metros,” Nxumalo said. 

The department has been renovating and building new prisons and three projects expected to be completed this month are set to provide 1,101 further beds.  

But building more prisons is not the only answer. 

Nxumalo said as part of their multi-pronged approach to dealing with overcrowding, there must be social reintegration of offenders back into their community in order to assist in reducing levels of repeat offending.

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