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Detainees who can't pay bail for 'petty crimes' could be released on warning

Inmates arrested for petty crimes such as shoplifting could be released on warning as efforts are ramped up to tackle Covid-19 in overcrowded prisons. File picture.
Inmates arrested for petty crimes such as shoplifting could be released on warning as efforts are ramped up to tackle Covid-19 in overcrowded prisons. File picture.

The department of justice and correctional services said inmates detained for minor offences with an option of bail they cannot afford are being considered for release on warning by the courts.

This as overcrowding in the country's prisons continues to pose a challenge to practising physical distancing to limit the impact of the coronavirus.

Correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo told TimesLIVE that releasing detainees who could not afford bail after being arrested for petty crimes was “an ongoing process”.

Prisons continue to be on Covid-19 high alert after 56 inmates and 31 correctional services staff were last week confirmed to have contracted the virus at a correctional facility in East London.

Workers and inmates at the country's most populated correctional facility, the Johannesburg prison, have also raised concerns about the risk of Covid-19 owing to overcrowding.

“Inmates detained for minor offences with a bail option [they cannot afford] are being considered for placement on warning by courts. This is an ongoing process,” said Nxumalo.

These people, he said, include detainees who were arrested for shoplifting of items such as bread and juice and were granted bail of R500, but could not pay so they were taken to a correctional facility.

“Clearly, this is a petty offence [when one is] unable to pay the bail of R500.

“Rather than waiting in prison for the next court date, we approach the court to say please consider letting this person out on a warning.”

Nxumalo said the department was not preoccupied with calls for the release of inmates but rather focused on prevention and containment of Covid-19 at correctional facilities.

This despite facing the “complexity of what is happening in other countries”, where inmates are released in response to the spread of the virus.

Nxumalo said: “Our approach is focused on prevention, containment, treatment and disaster recovery.

“As the number of infected people increases in correctional services, the containment and treatment pillar of the disaster management response strategy of the department has been activated.

“This is looking at the rapid identification of laboratory-confirmed cases, the isolation of those who test positive and management of the pandemic within our centres.”

There are 156,074 inmates in SA prisons, 54,283 of whom are awaiting trial while 303 are 60 years of age and older.

As for inmates who have unleashed their legal representatives on the department, requesting to be released and citing the risk of infection, Nxumalo said all inmates in prisons were “under lawful custody”.

One inmate at the Johannesburg prison has instructed his lawyers to demand his release.

In a letter sent to the department and seen by TimesLIVE, a legal firm representing the inmate takes aim at the department for “lack of will to take responsibility for the welfare — and indeed the lives — of the prisoners”.

The lawyers also accuse the department of sleeping on the job in the case of the outbreak at the East London facility, where dozens of prisoners contracted the virus.

“From just one warder testing positive for the virus, as announced on April 6, and assurances given that possible contacts had been isolated, by April 14 this number had risen to 23 officials and 53 inmates,” read the letter signed by Jeff Mendelson of Mendelson Attorneys.

“In addition, it would appear priority has been given to testing prison staff as opposed to testing the prisoners. Clearly, whatever protocols were in place are totally inadequate.

“There can be no excuse for the state not to have anticipated the inevitability of the coronavirus spreading like wildfire in a prison environment.”

Nxumalo defended the department, saying tracing of direct contacts was conducted at the East London correctional facility when the first person tested positive.

“We continue to do it as numbers of positive cases are reported. The first person to be recorded is called first index, not case number one, as you cannot be certain or guarantee this is the person who introduced the virus.”

The law firm also questioned the accuracy of the reported Covid-19 cases in the country's prisons, citing an “inadequate” screening methodology which they believe “will not protect the populations that are most vulnerable to the virus”, such as elderly prisoners and those with underlying health conditions.

Furthermore, Mendelson cast doubt on the department's capacity to provide sanitisers and soap to prisoners awaiting trial, and more so with the ban on visitors to correctional centres.

To this end, the law firm demanded their client, who is an “ill and elderly awaiting trial prisoner” facing “white collar and non-violent charges”, was “a suitable candidate for release during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They added that the inmate should be released on warning “lest our client contracts the coronavirus, which would undoubtedly be a death sentence for him”.

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