Our MPs crowd our jails

Nobody likes prisoners and nobody wants to be one. But the state of a country’s prisons is surely a test of its state of civilisation. Here, overcrowding has been a major problem in the 20 years since full democratisation – a problem partly caused by parliament and left to civil servants to sort out.

There are all sorts of reasons why all categories of serious crime have fallen these past 20 years. The only instance where it might not have is that of sexual offences, but there the definition of what constitutes such a crime has changed so much that we cannot usefully compare statistics from the years before 2007 and today. Wherever we can, we see fairly consistent reductions.

Some put the credit for this on our expanded policing functions, some on welfare payments, some on tougher sentencing, and some like to credit the ANC – although it is hardly to that organisation’s credit that the massive rise in criminal activity through the Eighties and early Nineties coincided with its vigorous pursuit of ungovernability in a campaign of “Peoples War”.

Whatever the real reasons, the effect on our prisons hasn’t been their emptying, but the opposite. Here, parliament is partly to congratulate, or blame, depending on how you view it. Starting in 1995, the legislature began its interference in the prerogatives of courts by tightening laws that govern whether unsentenced detainees could receive bail. This was followed by laws that imposed minimum sentencing for serious crimes.

Where one-in-four prisoners hadn’t been sentenced in 1995, this quickly rose to more than 30% (with a height of 37% in 1998). It is now, for the first time, back to the levels of two decades ago, no doubt helped by offialdom releasing prisoners where this is possible.

Officials can apply to courts for the release of unsentenced detainees on warning when these can’t afford bail. Prisoners sentenced to a maximum of two years can now be released after serving a quarter of their sentences, as against a previous rule of one half. People sentenced in terms of minimum sentencing legislation may now go free after serving half their sentence, rather than four-fifths. Remand detainees may now only be held to a maximum of two years before facing trial, and pilot schemes to electronically monitor parolees have begun.

Half of sentenced prisoners had a parole hearing in 2010, and 22% had their applications approved.

None of this, though, will make much of a dent in our long-term prison population as courts gets harsher in sentencing. Where only 7% of sentences were for five-to-10 years in 1995, this had risen to 21% by last year. Where a negligible 2% of people convicted by our courts in 1995 got sentences of more than 10 years, this applied to 48% of people in 2012.

Despite having 240 public and private prisons and with plans to build more, we have only once come close to ending overcrowding and that was through a special Presidential remission and conversion of sentences to mark Freedom Day in 2012, which saw prison overcrowding fall from 37% to just 2%. But, with 156 000 prisoners, we were back to an overcrowding rate of 28% by July this year. Expect President Jacob Zuma to be generous in April next year.

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Quick stats

It’s a male thing

Male prisoners (2012): 97%

Female prisoners (2012): 3%

It’s a black thing – 2012 prisoner races

Africans: 77%

Coloureds: 20%

Whites: 2%

Indians: 1%

It’s a young thing

Prisoners aged 14 to 25 years: 45%

Prisoners older than 25 years: 55%

SOURCES: Department of Correctional Services 2012 annual report; Human Rights Watch; SAIRR 2012 SA Survey; TimesLive

– By Paul Pereira. First published in The Citizen, 24 October 2013