Murderers, rapists, child abusers and terrorists are among those who will not be considered when the Department of Correctional Services releases around 19 000 prisoners from its 240 centres across the country in a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The department announced in a statement on Friday that it had begun a process of recalling parole board members to work from lockdown to start the process. They will be assisted by case management committees.
The offenders will be released in a phased process, starting with women, children and elderly inmates. They will be followed by offenders with shorter sentences and then those with longer sentences, the department said.
With a total inmate population of 156 000, an outbreak in the country's prisons would be catastrophic, said correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo.
"Some of the correctional facilities are more than 100% overpopulated and, consequently, it will be difficult to address, manage and prevent the spread of Covid-19 within them," Nxumalo said.
This includes the Eastern Cape's 45 prisons, where a total of 20 447 prisoners are crammed into cells. To address this, the province's premier, Oscar Mabuyane, told President Cyril Ramaphosa that 1 702 prisoners would be released from facilities which were overcrowded by almost 156%.
"Mr president, we have two deaths in the East London prisons, and 181 confirmed cases in all our prisons. Our hotspots are East London and Sada prisons," said Mabuyane in Port Elizabeth on Thursday.
Nxumalo said: "The department is not oblivious to the concerns of society towards releasing offenders before their sentence expiry dates. We arrived at this decision after careful consideration of facts before us. This measure is aimed at protecting the entire spectrum of South Africa from the Covid-19 pandemic. We cannot afford to falter, and we must flatten the curve and preserve lives."
He said victims of the offenders would be allowed to make representations during the parole consideration process.
"Participation of families and communities and other stakeholders will also assist with the mitigation of risk," said Nxumalo.
The following categories of sentenced offenders, are excluded:
- Inmates serving life sentences; sexual offences; murder and attempted murder; sedition, high treason, sabotage and terrorism; gender-based violence; child abuse;
- Offenders declared as dangerous by the court in terms of Section 286 A of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1997 (Act No 51 of 1997);
- Offenders certified as mentally ill and detained in accordance with the Mental Health Care Act, 2002 (Act No 17 of 2002);
- Offenders with further charges where bail was not fixed or fixed, but not paid;
- Escaped or absconded and are still at large on the date of the announcement;
- Are out on bail pending appeal on the date of the announcement;
- Violations under the Domestic Violence Act, 1998 (Act No 116 of 1998);
- Armed robbery/robbery with aggravating circumstances;
- Any other crime directly linked to any of the above-mentioned crimes (i.e. house breaking with the intent to steal and rape);
- Any attempt, inciting, soliciting or conspiracy to commit any of the above crimes.
Nxumalo said it had to be emphasised that this process was different from the remission applied in 2019. The sentences of those offenders who qualified were remitted, meaning their sentences were reduced by 12 to 24 months.
"All those who qualified to be placed out under this dispensation were released," he said.
"Internal processes are underway in terms of getting parole boards back at work during lockdown and Case Management Committees preparing profiles. It is also Case Management Committees who will work through the profiles, and those eligible for consideration will have their profiles submitted before the Parole Boards. We will not comment on the presentation made by the premier to the president as our processes are ongoing. The breakdown per provinces will only be known once the Case Management Committees have completed their job."
The department said a reduction in the prison population would help correctional services confront Covid-19 and further scale up resources required for effective implementation of the Disaster Management Response Strategy.The placement of qualifying sentenced offenders would commence as soon as all Parole Board processes have been finalised and all relevant rehabilitation and pre-release programmes are attended, said Nxumalo.