Prison Conditions in South Africa

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While visiting over twenty prisons as well as lockups in at least five different cities throughout South Africa, we found significant improvements had been made since the political climate began to change in 1990. Nevertheless, South Africa’s prisoner-to-population ratio is among the highest in the world, and many aspects of prison life remain depressingly unchanged from the years of official apartheid. South African prisons are places of extreme violence, where assaults on prisoners by guards or fellow inmates are common and often fatal. Beginning in the 1960s, ever-larger numbers of political prisoners were added to the South African prison population. Their writings and legal challenges to the authorities contributed to an international outcry, and as opposition to apartheid outside the prison system became steadily more effective during the 1970s and 1980s, the response of the authorities also affected the situation inside prison walls. In 1990, President F. W. de Klerk announced the end of the state of emergency, the unbanning of the African National Congress and the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. Since then, the prison system has been part of the general movement to reform government institutions that has accompanied the negotiations, and significant amendments to the Prisons Act of 1911 have been introduced. This report details the successes and failures of these reform efforts.

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