Thousands of South African prisoners set to be freed

By Crystal van Wyk

Posted on May 11, 2012 07:39

Thousands of South African prisoners will taste freedom from next week after benefiting from an amnesty by President Jacob Zuma.

Thousands of South African prisoners will taste freedom from next week after benefiting from an amnesty by President Jacob Zuma.

At least 15 000 prisoners would be released “conditionally or unconditionally.” They will be freed along with more than 20,000 offenders on probation or parole who qualify to have their sentences reduced over the next three months.

Zuma made the announcement during the country’s Freedom Day celebrations at the end of April. He said prisoners who qualified would receive a blanket six to 12 month reduction of their prison sentences.

But the South African president warned prisoners convicted of specific offences such as “aggressive, firearm and sexual related offenses” did not qualify for the amnesty.

Former Interpol and South African police chief, Jackie Selebi who was convicted on corruption charges would qualify.

Prison authorities believe overcrowding would be reduced from 34 percent over capacity to about 20 percent following the amnesty.

Nathi Mthethwa, the Police minister said the amnesty was “normal practice with President Zuma exercising his rights for the first time during his administration.”

 Mthethwa again re-iterated it would also “exclude all escapees and absconders still at large.”

The prisoners would be released over a 10 week period ending on July 6.

However, the amnesty has been criticised by the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party which says the moved “is a slap in the face for victims of crime, and their families.”

“In addition, it diminishes the deterrent effect of sentences,” the DA said.

James Selfe of the DA said “alternative ways should be sought to address the overcrowding in our prisons. The use of alternative community-based sentences, for example, enables perpetrators to pay back into society what they have taken out through acts of crime, without making a mockery of justice.”

Although acknowledging that South African prisons were overcrowded, Selfe believes an amnesty was not the best way to solve the problem.

“There are much more imaginative ways in which overcrowding can be addressed, for example through the use of alternative community-based sentencing which enables perpetrators to pay back in to society what they have taken out through acts of crime” he added.

According to statistics from the Department of Correctional Services, South Africa’s prison population at the end of March stood at 162 162. Of these inmates, 112 467 are sentenced prisoners and 49 467 are awaiting trial.

The prisons have a carrying capacity of 118 154 people.

Next week the authorities would release convicted women, elderly and disabled offenders and youth under the age of 21.

In the following week prisoners serving sentences from six months to seven years and longer would also be released.

 According toBusiness Day newspaper, the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative argues that the amnesty would not solve pressing problems.

“The problem is with awaiting trial prisoners,” the initiative’s co-ordinator Lukas Muntingh said. “There are too many people entering the system. They sit there for too long because cases take too long to finalise.”

But the ruling African National Congress’ Mathole Motshekga maintained the decision was necessary, particularly in light of the challenge of overcrowding.

“This exercise will, therefore, significantly reduce overcrowding and bolster the impact and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes on serving inmates,” Motshekga said.

Also read:
Jackie Selebi – The collapse of a shamed giant
Suzanne Mubarak – Egypt’s Prison Visitor
South Sudan’s vicious mental health cycle

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