Court gives Joburg prisoner permission to use laptop behind bars

After a long battle, Mbalenhle Ntuli has won the right to use his laptop in his Johannesburg prison cell.
After a long battle, Mbalenhle Ntuli has won the right to use his laptop in his Johannesburg prison cell.
Image: GroundUp/Google Maps

The South Gauteng High Court has ordered that Mbalenhle Ntuli, an inmate at Johannesburg Medium C prison, be allowed to use his laptop, without a modem, in his single cell.

Ntuli, who represented himself in court, took the national commissioner, the correctional services minister and head of the prison to court after he was denied access to his laptop, which he needs for distance learning.

He accused the authorities of “infringing on his right to further education” by restricting his study time to when the computer room facility is open.

Advocate Kutlwano Motla, representing the correctional services department and the prison, argued that inmates should not be allowed to have a computer in their cells because it was a security risk.

She said inmates could smuggle modems into their cells and use the computers to contact people on the outside. They could get involved in illicit organisations and could facilitate prison outbreaks, according to Motla.

But acting judge Matsemela said in his judgment on Friday that no evidence had been provided to prove a security risk. He said the prison policy that bans the use of laptops in single cells was an infringement of inmates’ right to study freely. Inmates have the right to study as they please within the legitimate limitations that prison life entails, he said.

“The policy withholds benefits, opportunities and advantages, on the grounds that he is a prisoner, thereby adversely affecting the equal enjoyment of his right to further education,” read the judgment.

Ntuli was a registered student at Oxbridge Academy, a private distance learning college based in Stellenbosch, Western Cape, at the time of his application to the court.

He started serving his 20-year sentence in March 2011. When he started studying in 2017, he was permitted to use his personal laptop in his cell because there was no computer room facility at Johannesburg Medium B prison.

About a year later he was transferred to Johannesburg Medium C prison, where his laptop was confiscated upon arrival. He said he had shown the head of education in the prison his registration letter and his proof of tuition payment, but “she couldn’t care less”.

He had then written an application to be allowed a laptop in his cell, stating that he was a registered student and his course required access to a laptop. His application was denied by the prison management, who said Oxbridge Academy had confirmed that Ntuli  needed a computer only to type his assignments, and this could be done in the computer room.

Motla argued that Ntuli should not have brought the matter to court because he had not exhausted all the prison’s internal processes to request the use of his laptop.

But the judge said Ntuli had provided more than enough evidence that he requested the use of his laptop multiple times, but was either ignored or denied. He said the letters Ntuli sent to management revealed an “appalling pattern” of management’s refusal to engage with him.

“Not only did the department not pay attention to [his] complaints, respondents have deliberately tried to mislead the court by alleging that [the] applicant did not exercise [his] internal remedies. Blatantly misleading allegations have no place in papers placed before the courts,” read the judgment.

Matsemela said the prison’s policy not only discriminated between inmates and the general public but  also discriminated between inmates in Johannesburg Medium C prison and other prisons that allowed inmates to have access to laptops in single cells.

“Where a prisoner has a spotless security record, as is evidently the case of the applicant, that fact should have been considered when the request for the use of computers was considered,” read the judgment.

Matsemela ordered that Ntuli make his laptop available for inspection by prison officials at any given time.

Article originally published by GroundUp

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