Juba — More than 20 inmates died due to poor conditions in South Sudan's Warrap state prison last year, authorities and family members have informed Sudan Tribune.
"The situation is never changing. It is deteriorating and getting worse and complicated by [the] lack of a lot of things. There is little we can do to address it. We have reported these developments to relevant authorities, including the office of governor and parliament," David Deng Alier, the deputy prisons and correctional services officer, said Thursday.
He claimed that despite regular assessments carried out by lawmakers and the state health minister prison conditions had not improved.
Alier suggested inmates may have died due to overcrowding and poor conditions in the detention facility, which reportedly lacks adequate food and medical supplies.
Initially constructed to accommodate less than 100 inmates, the detention centre reportedly has up to 193 prisoners currently.
"The challenges are many. I cannot tell you which one is not important. They are all important because a prisoner must have food to eat. They must get medicine when they are sick and there must be a space in the facility. The issue of feeding, lack of medicine and space since capacity of the current prison is small is one of our major concerns," the senior prison officer said.
He said relentless efforts by prison authorities to push for the speedy trial of inmates so as to reduce congestion, has not been granted by the judiciary.
"We also want public prosecutors to be conducting regular visits to prisoners and detention centres to reduce the numbers of cases, which can be handled at lower levels, such as in traditional courts", Alier added.
Experts argue that South Sudan's plural legal system, in which formal courts co-exist with customary courts, presided over by chiefs, presents concerns in relation to the guarantee of due process and legal rights.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, a third of South Sudan's prison population, which amounts to about 6,000 inmates, have not been convicted of any offence or in some cases even charged with one. However, many are detained, often for long periods, waiting for police, prosecutors and judges to process their cases.
The June 2012 report was based on research carried out in 12 of the country's 79 prisons, in areas with the largest prison populations. Over 250 inmates and a range of justice officials, correctional officers, police, prosecutors and traditional authorities were interviewed.
"The vast majority of detainees have no legal representation, because they cannot afford a lawyer and South Sudan has no functioning legal aid system," the reports notes.
"Judges pass long sentences and even condemn to death people who, without legal assistance, were unable to understand the nature of charges against them or to call and prepare witnesses in their defence."
Sources say cases of arbitrary arrests are also on the rise, with most linked to politicians who reportedly target their opponents. Many inmates are also being held for marital or sexual offences such as adultery and elopement, prison officials said.
While authorities claim only 30 inmates died in custody last year, relatives allege the actual figure could be as high as 75.