Community leaders criticise release of convicts

130923. Cape Town. Pollsmoor Prison maximum security. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

Cape Flats community leaders say the government’s decision to free 19 000 convicts to stop Covid-19’s spread in prisons will only add to the misery of poor, crime-ravaged communities.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the move, saying paroles will only apply to inmates deemed low-risk who have already served their minimum sentence, or who would approach this period in the next five years.

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola, said that as of Thursday May 7, South Africa had recorded 172 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in prisons, including 52 officials and three inmates in the Western Cape. Releasing the inmates was necessary to reduce overcrowding, which stood at 32.58%, and the spread of infections.

He said Pollsmoor Medium B prison was at more than double its capacity with 953 inmates but only 437 beds.

South African prisons had 157 208 inmates when they were only meant to hold 118 572. Western Cape prisons were overcrowded by 29.08%

“Experience has taught us that it is not possible for our infrastructure projects to outpace the rate of conviction due to our high crime rate in our country,” he said.

The decision to release the inmates had also been prompted by the fact that some prisoners already had compromised immune systems, making them more vulnerable to Covid-19, he said.

The release will be done in phases and the most vulnerable inmates, including those with underlying health problems, those older than 60 and female offenders with infants, will be prioritised.

The process was expected to ease overcrowding in prisons by 12.15%, the minister said.

“Should the parolees display behaviour that is in conflict with the law and erodes public confidence on their rehabilitation, we will not hesitate to revoke their parole and incarcerate them. This is a conditional parole,” he said.

Mr Lamola said the public could be assured that the offenders had learnt new skills and been rehabilitated and they were ready for a second chance in life.

“Inmates gain valuable skills from the workshops which bolster their employment prospects and opportunities to establish their own businesses upon their release,” he said.

However Manenberg Safety Forum chairwoman Roegshanda Pacoe said communities were already struggling with crime and didn’t need more.

“We are struggling to face what we are already dealt with, and now we must deal with this. They really have not given thought to this. There are going to be people who are going to be put out who are a danger to society and witnesses in these cases are going to be killed. Shooting has not stopped, people are being killed everyday.

“Women are going to be abused again and who is going to help them? How will they get to the shelters? This is a disastrous system for our people to be killed. They are again going to overload an already dysfunctional community that is already overloaded with crime. Why would they be locked up if they are low-risk inmates? Pollsmoor won’t keep them there for so many years if they have committed petty crimes.”

Bishop Lavis Community Police Forum chairman Graham Lindhorst said releasing the inmates could be catastrophic for communities as there was no guarantee they had been rehabilitated.

He said the state had previously made mistakes by paroling offenders who had gone on to rape and murder children. “So who said it can’t happen again? We are totally against it. Again, government is making decisions without consulting us. They are going to empty prisons and put the issue back into our communities.”

Hanover Park CPF chairwoman Kashiefa Mohamad said crime levels were still too high to release inmates.

“Covid-19 didn’t even stop the crime so our levels will be worse if they come out. They will have to adhere to lockdown rules, but who said they will be able to? They won’t have jobs or be able to do anything so they will be bored and get involved with crime all over again.”