By Anees Teladia
While the state of security and integrity within South African prisons has arguably always been regarded as questionable by the public, South Africa’s prisons are doing well in comparison to many other African states, according to the Africa Criminal Justice Reform (ACJR) project. The spotlight has fallen on South Africa’s prison system once again, after large amounts of contraband were confiscated from Durban’s Westville prison following the circulation of two videos which had subsequently gone viral.
One of the videos clearly shows an inmate – serving a life sentence for murder – snorting what appears to be a white, powdery substance. The video has sparked national outrage and, according to some, reflects the state of lawlessness in the country. Following the investigation into Westville prison, Justice and Correctional Services Minister, Ronald Lamola announced that he had suspended the senior manager in its Durban management area.
“If I were to compare [South Africa] with other African countries…we are substantially better off (when looking at the staff-to-prisoner ratios). If we look at infrastructure, we are definitely better off compared to other African countries,” said associate professor at the University of the Western Cape and project coordinator of the Africa Criminal Justice Reform (ACJR) project, Prof. Lukas Muntingh.
“We have to acknowledge that over the last 20 years, the number of escapes from prisons has been dramatically reduced. On that front, security wise, the Department of Correctional Services is doing reasonably well.”
Muntingh indicated that the problem is centred around the criminal economy and the participation of correctional services officials therein.
“The problem comes with issues around contraband, the treatment of prisoners and so forth…there is a criminal economy that is facilitated, either directly or indirectly, by officials of the Department of Correctional Services.”
“There’s more than enough evidence to indicate that in the problematic prisons it’s the officials that are enabling it. They either look the other way or they actively participate in the criminal economy,” said Muntingh.
While Muntingh does recognise gains made by the department in combating unprofessionalism and corruption within the prison system, he suggests that internal discipline and managerial competence need to be promoted. He also indicated that there are systemic problems within the prison system that need to be addressed urgently.
“I think that they [the Department of Correctional Services] are carrying out part of the solution correctly – relating to internal discipline. That is the responsibility of every single manager in the Department, whether you are managing a section or an entire facility. If there are security breaches, managers must be held accountable,” said Muntingh.
“If it [the presence of corruption and contraband] is on a significant scale, it means that there are systemic problems that need to be addressed at a managerial level. The solution is that if people are found to be in grave breaches of security arrangements, they must lose their jobs.”
To curb security breaches, Minister Lamola also announced that correctional facilities would have “regular patrols, frequent searches of cells, control over objects entering correctional centres, as well as searches of visitors monitored closely by corrections management”.
Full body scanners will be rolled out at various correctional centres throughout the country, including: Durban Correctional Facility, St Albans Correctional Facility, Johannesburg Correctional Facility, Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Facility, Pollsmoor Correctional Facility, Barberton Correctional Facility and Groenepunt Correctional Facility.
Lamola added that security controls are “non-negotiable.”
Muntingh, however, believes this won’t be effective without eliminating all corrupt and negligent practices.
“Security in a prison is dependent not on technology, but on the people responsible for security at the prison…if the people who are at the gate have integrity and search every single person – regardless of rank or position in the trade union – then you will bring down security breaches.”