SA’s implementation of the "Mandela Rules" for the humane treatment of prisoners adopted by the UN will be a challenge, given the overcrowding of the country’s prisons.

This emerged from a media briefing on Thursday by Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha ahead of his budget vote speech in Parliament.

Masutha told journalists that Cabinet has approved the Mandela Rules in March and they will be launched in July. Member states of the UN committed themselves to the rules, which set minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners, in December 2015.

The minister said the rules did not specifically prescribe occupancy levels but, in general terms, overcrowding militated against the delivery of effective services to inmates. The rules endorse the principle that prisoners be treated humanely and were accorded all their rights to proper nutrition, exercise, access to education and training, etc.

"We do need to consider upfront that the continued challenge of overcrowding presents as a serious challenge," Masutha said. He stressed the need for SA to address its high level of crime, especially in the Western Cape where there had been a huge upsurge in violent crime.

Currently, SA has a prison-bed capacity for about 119,000 prisoners, which is sufficient for the sentenced prisoner population of about the same number. However, there is an overpopulation of facilities when remand prisoners are taken into account.

As of April, there were 163,114 inmates in the country’s 243 correctional facilities of which 117,820 were sentenced offenders and 45,294 were remand detainees. Overcrowding nationally is in the region of 37%, but in some prisons in areas where crime is very high overcrowding can reach as high as 200%.

Masutha said the challenge of overcrowding was being addressed through a multi-pronged strategy that included the strengthening of diversion programmes; alternative sentencing; creating additional bed spaces; better management of the parole system; and the promotion of successful social integration and reduction of re-offending.

The biggest challenge is dealing with remand prisoners as it is difficult to plan for them as their numbers cannot be predicted, and the length of their stay depends on the outcome of court cases that could be finalised in a day — but could also take more than a year.

For example, there has been a huge influx of about 4,000 remand prisoners in the Western Cape over the past three to six months, which has placed enormous pressure on an already critical situation of overcrowding.

Masutha said new facilities have been constructed to increase the number of prison beds and other facilities had been expanded.

Deputy Minister Thabang Makwetla said a new facility in Tzaneen was in the process of completion with a capacity for about 350 prisoners. In addition, the first phase of a new prison in Standerton has been finalised that will cater for 500 prisoners. Another new facility in Escourt will accommodate about 300 prisoners. The maximum security prison in Pretoria is being expanded.