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The total number of prisoners in South Africa, excluding the nominally independent homelands, stands at a daily average of approximately 110,000, with an annual turnover of 400,000. An additional 12,000 detainees are held in police lockups, according to the government.22 Population statistics in South Africa are notoriously unreliable, but the population of South Africa excluding the homelands is estimated to be thirty-one million. The prisoner-to-population ratio from these figures is roughly 393 per 100,000. However, prison statistics for the "independent" TBVC states (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei: together estimated to have a population of 7.5 million) are not easily obtainable, and could skew this ratio. Over recent years the number of prisoners fluctuated between about 100,000 in 1980 and the high of 118,000 in 1987.23 At the end of 1991, following a large number of early releases, the figure temporarily dropped to 96,908 inmates.


South African prisons are seriously overcrowded. In January 1993, the government stated that the prison system then held 110,000 prisoners in accommodations designed for approximately 84,000 (an overcrowding rate of 23 percent). This statistic, however, does not tell the whole story. The stated accommodation norms according to which a prison's capacity is measured, which were supplied to us by the Department of Correctional Services, are low to begin with: 61.04 square feet per prisoner in a single cell, and 38.86 square feet per prisoner in a communal cell.24 Moreover, when discussing prison overcrowding it is

also important to remember that a prison that is filled at 100 percent of its capacity is in practice overcrowded. At any given time in any institution, some cells are not used for housing because they are being repaired, are temporarily used for storage or are not in use for other reasons.

Furthermore, some institutions are significantly more overcrowded than suggested by the national average. During our 1992 trip, we were told that the most overcrowded prison complex in the country was Pollsmoor. Even there, the level of overcrowding differed from prison to prison and two prisons within the complex were filled below their stated capacity. The numbers for the five facilities of Pollsmoor on the day of our visit there in August 1992 were as follows:

Maximum Security (Admission) capacity 1,619

number of inmates 3,192

Medium Security A capacity 1,265

number of inmates 1,893

Medium Security B capacity 534

number of inmates 684

Minimum Security capacity 637

number of inmates 522

Women's Prison capacity 543

number of inmates 340

The maximum security facility was almost 100 percent overcrowded. Yet even in the underpopulated "minimum security" prison (in practice a pre-release institution where prisoners served the last four months of their sentences) we observed cell overcrowding. The thirteen-inmate communal cells held fifteen prisoners, while cells down the hall stood empty.

At any given time, approximately 23 percent of inmates held by the South African prison system are pre-trial prisoners. Delay in the judicial process is one of the principal factors in overcrowding and, while most prisoners awaiting trial are brought to court within three months, some may remain in prison for over a year.25 Nearly a quarter of prison space is therefore taken up by individuals who are legally still presumed innocent. Furthermore, under South African law, pre-trial detention does not automatically count towards the eventual sentence, although a judge may rule that credit for time served before the trial be given to the prisoner. Counting this time automatically into a final sentence would significantly reduce the overcrowding problem.

Prisoners awaiting trial receive better treatment than sentenced prisoners in some respects C for example, they may wear their own clothes and are allowed a greater number of visits. However, the overcrowding for prisoners awaiting trial may be worse and there are no opportunities for them to work. This lack of constructive activity is particularly problematic because pre-trial detainees are not classified in any way. During our prison visits, we encountered many indigent prisoners charged with non-violent offenses who were being held in custody only because they were unable to post bail, even of small sums. These prisoners were being held in the same accommodation as prisoners charged with violent crimes, to whom bail had been denied.

Attempts made by the government to address the question of overcrowding have included several amnesties. Common-law prisoners have benefited from successive general amnesties explicitly aimed to address overcrowding. Tens of thousands of prisoners were granted early release during 1991 and 1992, though most of them would have been released within a few months in any event. In January 1993, the government announced that the sentences of a further 7,500 prisoners would be remitted. In addition, approximately 1,600 political or security prisoners were released between February 1990 and late 1993.


Apart from early release, the only short-term measure used by the authorities to reduce overcrowding in a specific prison is the transfer of prisoners to less overcrowded prisons elsewhere in South Africa. Although this may be the best alternative under the circumstances, the attempts of the authorities to carry out such transfers lead to extreme discontent among the prisoners taken away from their home areas.

As part of a deliberate policy during the apartheid years, many prisons, particularly maximum security prisons, were located in remote rural areas. By their locations, escape was made more difficult, and the prisoner, isolated from his family, fell more totally under the control of the prison institution. Among the prisons we visited, Barberton prison complex, close to the border with Mozambique, was amongst the most notorious of these rural prisons, where conditions were often particularly harsh. As a consequence of this policy, South Africa lacks accommodation to house prisoners near to their home communities.

In every prison we visited that was not located in a major urban center, and in some others, prisoners complained to us that they were too far from home. Among current inmates, complaints about transfers far outnumbered complaints about any other aspect of prison life. Because of the cost and time of travel (Barberton is six hours by car, more by shared taxi, from Johannesburg, where a large number of its inmates have their homes), inmates of these prisons are almost certain to have few contacts with their families, or with the outside world in general. In some cases, prisoners stated to us that they could receive no visits at all because of the distance their families would have to travel. To a prisoner with no other connection to normalcy, this is an extreme hardship. Many told us that they preferred overcrowded cells to being far from their families.

In some cases, prisoners had taken extreme steps to force the authorities to agree to their requests to be transferred to a prison nearer to their families. In several cases, prisoners that we spoke to had mutilated themselves horribly with razor blades, leaving gruesome scars, or had threatened to commit suicide. Some of these had been charged with further offenses to add to their criminal record. Although, due to the location of many prisons, it would be impossible for the authorities to accede in the short term to all requests for transfers, many such requests seem to be unsympathetically rejected. Several prisoners and ex-prisoners quoted to us a saying reportedly often used by warders to prisoners asking to be moved: "This is the last station. You go nowhere from here."


In the course of our two trips to South Africa, we visited over twenty prisons in ten prison complexes. We observed essentially two types of cells: single cells and the so-called communal cells, or dormitory-type cells.

At the time of our visits, single cells in men's prisons were used for three purposes: to house prisoners requesting separate accommodation, for example, in order to study, or for self-protection; for isolation for disciplinary purposes; and to segregate prisoners deemed to be violent or otherwise disruptive. Isolation as a disciplinary measure has now been abolished, effective March 1994.

Most single cells we visited measured approximately sixty square feet. When used by one prisoner, they seemed small but adequate in size. In some prisons, however, single cells are used to house three prisoners (the South African prison system, as a matter of policy, and in line with the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules, does not house two prisoners to a cell), making them extremely crowded. In the Pollsmoor maximum security prison, for example, a cell measuring fifty-six square feet housed three inmates, leaving barely enough room for the three of them to spread their sleeping mats.

The communal cells visited were of various sizes and held between ten and almost sixty prisoners. In one of the Brandvlei prisons, a cell of approximately 1,200 square feet held fifty-eight men on the day of our visit. A cell in Pollsmoor that measured 624 square feet, held thirty-five inmates. A 118-square-foot cell on death row in Pretoria Maximum Security prison could accommodate up to five inmates. These measurements gave a space per prisoner of respectively 20.6, 17.8, and 23.6 square feet, well under South Africa's stated norms.

Cell furniture in South African prisons ranges from spare to nonexistent. Many cells do not have beds, so that prisoners sleep on mats that are rolled up for the day. Lockers for private possessions are not standard, and where provided may be inadequate for the number of prisoners actually accommodated in the cell. Shelves, tables or chairs are also rare. For example, in single cells in the women's prison in Durban, we saw little desks, apparently for prisoners who were studying, but no chairs. However, in Kroonstad women's prison the cells were well-appointed with desks, chairs and shelves. Most dormitory cells had neither desks, nor chairs, nor tables.

One of the officials in Brandvlei prison said that even if the stated capacity of a communal cell was, for example, nineteen, and the cell held forty-one or forty-two people, there was "no problem with overcrowding" because double C and, in some cases, triple C bunks were in use. But the bunks we saw were low and there was not enough room to sit up on the lower one, making the cells extremely uncomfortable to live in, given the absence of other furniture.26

Most cells we visited had toilets, and communal cells had showers, usually shielded by a partition and sometimes located in an adjoining, separate room. In most cases, one toilet had to be used by as many as twenty people. Many cells smelled badly because of the presence or proximity of the toilet, coupled with bad ventilation. In Brandvlei, prisoners complained of cold in the winter and excessive heat during the summer months; in Barberton, in the sub-tropical "lowveld," prisoners from elsewhere in South Africa complained of the heat and humidity, convinced that it made them ill.

Light switches were outside the cell and were controlled by guards. In some prisons, for example on death row in Pretoria and in communal cells on Robben Island, lights were on twenty-four hours a day. Some cells had insufficient natural light. For example, in the Modderbee prison, cells overlooking the road outside the prison had their windows blocked by louvre coverings, making the cells dark even during the day and preventing the prisoners from seeing outside.

Most prisons, with the notable exception of Pollsmoor Maximum Security, were exceptionally clean. Prisoners are required to work in maintenance of the facility and keep it in a spotless condition, as far as cleanliness is concerned. In prison after prison, we observed inmates polishing the floors to high luster, making the floors virtually dangerous to walk on. Cells in the majority of the prisons were also extremely neatly kept. Several prisoners, however, stated to us that prisons were abnormally clean in preparation for our visit.

In some cells in some prisons, male prisoners had painted the cell walls with elaborate murals on Biblical or other themes. In most cases, however, cells for male prisoners had no decoration, apart from elaborate fan-shaped and other compositions fashioned out of blankets and arranged on beds or sleeping mats, a unique form of prison art. In the hospital at Brandvlei, the wards were decorated almost as if for a Christmas party, with streamers and folded sheets. In Barberton Maximum Security prison, a cell for prisoners from the highest privilege group had a small area arranged with a display in tribute to the "Orlando Pirates" soccer team.

In women's prisons conditions were much more pleasant, although they varied considerably from one facility to another. In Kroonstad women's prison, which formerly held only whites, almost all inmates had single cells, whose doors were not individually locked. There were pictures on the hallway walls and in prisoners' cells, and plants in common areas. Many female prisoners had embroidered pillowcases or wall decorations for their individual cells, and most had bookcases, desks and chairs in their cells. By contrast, in Durban and Pollsmoor, women shared communal cells similar to those housing the male prisoners, though they suffered substantially less overcrowding. (See also the section on women in the chapter on "Special Categories of Prisoners").


Bedding differed from prison to prison. As mentioned above, in many prisons, especially in those formerly for black prisoners, there were no beds and prisoners slept on mats.27 Even in those cells with beds, prisoners were not provided with sheets and pillows, nor with pajamas, and covered themselves only with blankets. Sheets and night wear were provided only to prisoners in hospital. Prisoners and former prisoners who had recently served time frequently reported that their blankets and bedding were infested with lice.28

Prisoners, except for judgment debtors and unsentenced inmates who are allowed to keep their own clothing, wear prison-issue uniforms. For men these are a standard dark green, sometimes threadbare and ill-fitting, but otherwise adequate, though some prisoners complained that in the extremes of summer and winter they were too hot or too cold.29 Women also wear prison clothing, though it is less a uniform than a limited choice of prison-issue dresses. In Transkei, men's uniform was beige, and women wore a uniform of blue-gray dresses, with yellow headscarves. Prisoners may wear their own underwear. Prisoners are responsible for washing their own clothes and are issued laundry soap for this purpose, which must also be used for personal hygiene. Inmates complained that the quantity of soap was insufficient for frequent washes, and of poor quality.


We received many complaints about food. Prisoners reported that food was of poor quality or insufficient in quantity, and that they often went hungry. Repeatedly, we heard of food served spoiled and of corruption in the kitchens, as a result of gang activity or with the collaboration of the warders. Many inmates pointed out to us that the last meal of the day was at 3:00 or 4:00 P.M. while breakfast was at 7 A.M., leaving them hungry for many hours. In some prisons, only two meals a day were served, and prisoners took bread and a drink with them to the cell as their third meal of the day. For example, in the Durban Westville prison complex, lunch was served at 12:30 P.M. At that time prisoners were issued bread and powdered drink for supper. Breakfast was at 7:30 A.M.

In most prisons, meals were served in dining halls. But in some, for example in the Pollsmoor Maximum Security prison, they were taken in the cells and had to be eaten in the presence of foul-smelling toilets, and often with nothing but the floor to sit on. We also heard complaints that spoons were often the only utensils issued to prisoners, regardless of whether they ate in dining rooms or cells, and that eating meals was difficult and unpleasant as a result.

Most food eaten by prisoners is grown on prison farms by prisoners themselves. In Brandvlei prison kitchen, our representatives were treated to a display of a veritable cornucopia of fruit and vegetables from the farm, allegedly for consumption by the prisoners. However, prisoners at Brandvlei and elsewhere complained that they rarely received fresh fruits or vegetables, and did not benefit from the agricultural work that they did. Prison farms do not sell their produce commercially, although it is available at below market prices to prison warders.


No medically-qualified individual was included among our representatives visiting South African prisons. Due to this lack of medical expertise, we did not focus on the quality of health care available to South African prisoners. Complaints about the lack of good health care were, however, very frequent. Most often these complaints referred to the cursoriness of medical examinations, especially of prisoners complaining that they should be exempted from working, and the tendency of the authorities to treat every prisoner making a complaint as a malingerer. Prisoners also stated that there were usually too many prisoners with complaints for the doctor to see in the time allocated.

Some prisons had their own in-house doctor; most prisons, however, were visited once or twice a week by doctors from nearby hospitals, and a doctor could be called at any time. All prisons we visited had qualified medical staff of some sort in residence. Clinics and wards that we visited were clean and apparently well-cared for; prisoners in the hospital were issued with sheets and pajamas, an unusual luxury.

Among the most frequent serious medical complaints we heard of were tuberculosis and asthma, clearly related to overcrowding. In these and other cases, prisoners received the appropriate drugs for free. Optical and dental care prescribed by a prison doctor on medical grounds are also free. However, in several cases prisoners stated to us that their requests for eyeglasses had been rejected as unnecessary, and that therefore they could not read.

Prisoners regarded as at a high risk of infection with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS C including drug addicts, those accused of sexual offenses and illegal immigrants from countries with a high incidence of HIV C are routinely given blood tests upon admission to the prison system. All prisoners working in the kitchen are also tested for the HIV virus. Prisoners known to be infected with HIV are segregated from the other prisoners at night, but not otherwise treated differently, according to prison staff. Despite the known high rate of homosexual behavior and sexual abuse in prison, condoms are not made available to prisoners to help reduce the spread of HIV infection.

22 Beeld, September 3, 1992, reprinted in FBIS-AFR-92-201, 16 October 1992; government press release January 6, 1993; letter from Department of Correctional Services to Human Rights Watch, June 15, 1993.

23 János Mihálik, "The High Costs of Judicial Vengeance," De Jure, Vol.22 (1989), p. 41.

24 The metric equivalents are 3.5m5 per prisoner for a communal cell, and 5.5m5 for a single cell. Rule 10 of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules states, in very vague terms, that "All accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation." Regulation 97(1) of the Correctional Services Regulations, in words that closely follow Rule 10, provides that "No dormitory or cell shall be used for sleeping purposes unless it complies with the prescribed requirements in respect of floor space, cubic capacity, lighting, ventilation, and general health conditions." However, the relevant conditions, including space per prisoner, are "prescribed" not in the Regulations but in Departmental Orders, whose legal status is not clear. It is therefore extremely difficult both to find out the applicable norms, and especially to challenge actual conditions on their basis. See Van Zyl Smit, Prison Law and Practice, pp. 143-145.

25 As of December 31, 1991, 23,694 prisoners of a total prison population of 96,908 were awaiting trial. A government survey of all prisoners awaiting trial carried out on January 2, 1991, indicated that such prisoners had been held in custody as follows: one to fourteen days, 25.7 percent; fourteen days to one month, 30.5 percent; one to three months, 33 percent; between three and six months, 8.3 percent; longer than six months, 2.5 percent. However, in a survey of five urban prisons in February 1991, 16.29 percent of awaiting trial prisoners had been held longer than six months. Information given to Parliament by the Minister for Correctional Services, quoted in SA Barometer Vol.6, No.19, (Johannesburg) September 25, 1992.

26 In commenting on our report, the Department of Correctional Services denied that triple bunks were in use in South African prisons. We have, however, a photograph of triple bunks in use in a cell at Brandvlei prison. They also stated that the problem that bunks are low has been identified and would be addressed in the manufacture of new beds.

27 The Department of Correctional Services stated to Human Rights Watch, commenting on our draft report in December 1993, that: "A comprehensive programme of providing beds to prisoners is at full swing at present."

28 The prescribed hygiene requirements are that blankets and sleeping mats must be shaken out and aired once every two weeks, and that blankets must be washed twice a year; Van Zyl Smit, Prison Law and Practice, p.146.

29 The Department of Correctional Services provided to Human Rights Watch a list of prison clothing available to sentenced prisoners, which "must, depending on work and current climatic conditions, be provided at the State's expense." Based on our interviews, however, it does not appear that the provision of clothing on this list is satisfactorily administered in all prisons.

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February 1994