Thirty-seven awaiting trial people, the majority without face masks, were crowded into a cell with 28 beds, making social distancing impossible to implement.
While some were forced to share a bed, others had to endure sleeping on the floor without even a mattress to lie on and the same scenario also prevailed in two other cells.
These are some of the harsh realities of overcrowding that the deputy minister of the department of correctional services (DCS), Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa, experienced firsthand during his operational visit to Chris Hani correctional centres in the Sada management area on Monday and Tuesday.
Although inmates had no hand sanitizer in the cells, soap and water were provided. Correctional officials feared inmates might drink the hand sanitiser as a substitute for alcohol.
The deputy minister interacted with inmates while making his rounds of the prison. Complaints ranged from water dripping from the roof to toilets which could not flush.
One said: “I am epileptic. Officials have refused to give me medical treatment. I have been here for five months and suffered a seizure last night.”
Another, showing his neck injuries to the deputy minister alleged: “I have been beaten by officials for asking for bread because I do not eat meat.”
However, it was not only the inmates grappling with space issues at the Queenstown correctional facility. The officials have been facing congestion for years, with seven employees working in a small office space.
To counter the spread of Covid, employees said they were rotating work schedules.
On Tuesday in the Lady Frere correctional service centre, Holomisa witnessed the debilitating conditions of the old structure, with the ceiling on the verge of falling down. One of the cells had to be closed down due to extensive leakages.
Holomisa said: “We came to see the conditions of the correctional centres for ourselves, to look at the wellbeing of inmates and to see if officials comply with the prescripts of the constitution and the Nelson Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which states that even if inmates have committed crimes they continue to be human beings and should be treated as such.
“We are also here to listen to issues affecting officials. The work of the department cannot be successfully executed if we do not look at human resource issues.”
The Sada management area has 15 correctional centres straddling across Chris Hani, Joe Gqabi and Amathole district municipalities.
“The conditions under which officials are working are not conducive to lockdown regulations. They are in overcrowded spaces which is a matter of concern. But I have been assured there is a space which was identified at the former military base to construct offices in 2022.”
To address the issue of overcrowding, the deputy minister said the department was opening centres across the country and that some had been completed. This, he said, was where the inmate population would be accommodated.
However, the major solution was to rehabilitate offenders by placing emphasis on correcting their conduct before they returned to society.
The deputy minister concluded his visit at the Cradock correctional service centre for young inmates where officials also had a long list of ordeals about the conditions under which they were working. They ranged from security fencing, shortage of firearms, vehicles, staff, social workers to demands for risk allowances to be provided for by DCS. The lack of food compliance certificates and artisans being unavailable was said to be the reason centres were falling apart due to a lack of maintenance.
The delay in sourcing artisans was because DCS relied on the department of public works to implement the function. However, the management was currently in recruiting artisans.
DCS national deputy commissioner, advocate Moeketsi Mashibini, also complained about the fact that only nine vacant posts out of 119 had been advertised in the area.