The South African government has released 7,000 prisoners on special parole in a bid to decongest its overcrowded correctional centres “to protect inmates from the ravages of coronavirus”.
A total of 19,000 offenders considered as low-risk are scheduled to be pardoned under the Correctional Services Covid-19 Disaster Management Response Strategy, which was drawn to achieve a 12 per cent reduction in prison overcrowding.
South Africa’s 243 correctional facilities have a capacity for 118,572 beds but are currently experiencing an overpopulation rate of almost 23 per cent, with 145 376 inmates.
So far 1,606 prisoners have tested positive for Covid-19, with 16 deaths recorded.
Justice and Correctional Services minister Ronald Lamola admitted that most prisons “have been affected as a result of perennial challenges such as chronic overcrowding, which prevents the practising of physical distancing.”
With 7,000 inmates having benefited from the special parole dispensation since May, Mr Lamola expressed “full confidence in our preventative and treatment measures.”
“This is one of the measures we are taking to prevent the rapid spread of Covid-19 in correctional centres,” he said, explaining that from a clinical perspective, overcrowding affects the quality of oxygen circulation within cells.
The action to depopulate prisons comes as South Africa grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases, with 337,594 cases and 4,804 deaths.
Daily new infections are now averaging 12,000 for a country with the sixth-highest cases in the world as of Friday.
In its fight against the spread of coronavirus in prisons, the Department of Correctional Services says it has employed over 600 additional medical personnel.
The Correctional Services Covid-19 Disaster Management Response Strategy has also seen prison visits banned.
“We have also prohibited visits to all our centres as a precautionary measure to curb the outbreak,” said Mr Lamola.
“This has been in force for the past three months. Inmates communicate with their loved ones through telephones and we have increased their access time. We will review the decision at an appropriate time. For now, the prohibitions stand,” he said.
“The South African government recognises and affirms the right of inmates to inherent human dignity.”
Before implementation of these measures, there were riots in some prisons as inmates demanded strict measures for protection against the Covid-19.
Some 2,548 correctional services officials have contracted the virus while 33 have died.
Deputy Minister of Correctional Services, Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa, tested positive for the coronavirus in June but has since recovered.