Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola has declined to comment on reports of the release of thousands of inmates in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the country’s cramped and densely populated prisons.
On Monday, Eyewitness News reported that President Cyril Ramaphosa would announce the release of “awaiting trial inmates for so-called soft crimes and non-violent offenders eligible for parole, among others”.
Ramaphosa is yet to make an announcement, but a number of officials linked to the government or who were aware of discussions, suggested to News24 that the proposal was under serious consideration.
Responding to a question posed during a late-night briefing on Wednesday, Lamola said he and his department could not “be held accountable for speculation”.
“We have not made any announcement about that. Neither has the person who has constitutional powers to do so made the announcement – the president. So we cannot be held accountable for speculation. So the person who has made the announcement and speculated and made the reports, I think, is the one who must account for that announcement,” said Lamola.
The minister said if there was any announcement, it would be made by the president or through the appropriate government channels.
“At this stage, we will not be able to respond to that [question].”
Earlier on Wednesday, Lamola’s deputy, Patekile Holomisa, said Ramaphosa was still considering the release of certain prisoners.
Holomisa was addressing a virtual meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services and Select Committee on Security and Justice.
MPs had asked him about the release of the prisoners, to which Holomisa responded: “That is a matter that is still being considered by the president.”
Lamola told the committees that physical distancing was not practical at correctional centres.
He said even if 30% of the prison population was released, there would still be challenges.
Last week, the Inspecting Judge of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, Justice Edwin Cameron, and organisations, Detention Justice Forum and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, wrote a letter to Lamola, calling on him to release certain categories of inmates to alleviate overcrowding in prisons.
“There is every reason to fear that the virus may spread more fearsomely within our correctional system, and soon,” the groups noted.
“Conditions of overcrowding and strained resources mean that correctional centres and their personnel are not able to respond adequately to the health needs of inmates. This imperils both inmates and officials.”
The correctional services department registered 138 positive cases, which include officials and inmates, by Tuesday evening.