South Africa urgently needs laws that criminalise torture in its penal system if it is to prevent the type of abuses the country was chastised for by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, said prison activists.
Chronic overcrowding, an entrenched gang culture and under-staffing in South Africa’s 241 prisons has made the transformation of its correctional system a difficult task, as it tries to move away from an apartheid-era characterised by retributive justice to one focusing on rehabilitation.
“Having a crime of torture would assist authorities to recognise acts of torture and to initiate proper investigation of torture with the diligence, impartiality and competence that is required by international law,” said Amanda Dissel, local delegate of Geneva-based Association for the Prevention of Torture at parliamentary hearings, Reuters reports.
Currently the Correctional Services Act does not refer directly to a prohibition on torture or ill treatment, and guards may use minimum force to quell violence or subdue trouble-makers.
Mechanical restraints and segregation of prisoners are also allowed as long as certain provisions are followed.
But the use of various pieces of equipment in prisons came under fire from anti-torture activists, who want to see a ban on electro-shock belts, stun shields, stun batons and leg irons.
“The use of this equipment runs contrary to international norms and standards and has no place in modern-day correctional institutions,” the Institute for Security Studies said in a written submission.
MOST PRISONERS IN AFRICA
Some of the devices, such as the electro-shock belt, can deliver a shock of up to 50,000 volts and cause seizures and heartbeat irregularities, the Institute said.
South Africa, which at the end of March this year held 160,545 prisoners and ranked number one on the continent for having the most people behind bars, was found to have violated international statutes after a prisoner lodged a complaint following an incident in 2005 at a maximum security prison.
The testimony of Bradley McCallum, who filed the UNHRC complaint in 2008, makes for chilling reading and helped expose the treatment meted out at times in South African prisons.
“The warder then requested that (McCallum) remove his pants and forced him to the ground, which caused a dislocation of his jaw and his front teeth. In the corridor, there were about 40 to 50 warders in uniform… They beat inmates indiscriminately and demanded that they strip naked and lie on the wet floor…,” McCallum wrote in his complaint.
In September and in response to the UNHRC’s findings, the Department of Correctional Services said it would re-open an investigation against implicated officials.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, South Africa ranked no. 9 globally for the number of people in jail, just behind Iran.
The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, a statutory body monitoring prisons in the country, said in its latest annual report that unnatural deaths had dropped to 48 from 55 last year but highlighted a worrying trend in the number of homicides implicating officials.
“The overall impression gained is that when officials beat prisoners to death, investigations are slow, disciplinary charges minor and criminal prosecutions unlikely. The net result is a culture of impunity,” said a submission by the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative.