A tough, zero-tolerance approach will be adopted towards security at correctional facilities, which have been hit by a number of disturbances, justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola indicated at a media briefing on Wednesday.

Action will be taken to stop the smuggling of contraband in the prisons and errant officials involved in the smuggling and other offences “will not be spared any mercy”, the minister warned.

“These officials will be summarily dismissed and if a member of the public is found with contraband, they must be subjected to a very harsh sentence.” Full body scanners will be deployed at seven major prisons to combat smuggling.

Lamola emphasised that security controls are non-negotiable and that measures such as regular patrols, frequent searches of cells, control over objects entering prisons, as well as searches of visitors will be closely monitored by management.

The security measures announced by Lamola follow a number of “irregular and unacceptable” security breaches, some of which could have been avoided if managed correctly.

“Accountability and consequence management has to be effected [by] the department of correctional services so we can deal with the perception of impunity and errant behaviour, be it by inmates, officials or contractors, and members of the public who frequent our facilities.”

The incidents included the involvement last year of officials at the Durban Westville Correctional Facility in agitating inmates to fight among themselves, going so far to to give their security equipment to them. There was a second incident in which inmates were openly taking a white substance, which looked like drugs. The officials involved were eventually redeployed so they cannot work directly with inmates.

In June, a search of a cell at the Durban Medium B correctional facility uncovered contraband that included drugs and cellphones.

Lamola said both incidents revealed a complete dereliction of duty or maladministration in the Durban management area, and the senior manager of corporate affairs has been placed on suspension.

The St Albans Correctional Centre has also been placed under ministerial scrutiny following several incidents that were not suitably dealt with. “The behaviour of inmates at this particular centre is worrying and this is clearly illustrated by the number of assault cases that get reported continuously. Interim heads have been appointed,” said Lamola.

An official at the Goedemoed Prison has been suspended in relation to the murder of one of the prison officials by an inmate, and officials at an advisory level have also been given notices of suspension because of a severe lapse in the classification of inmates.

Earlier in the day, during a briefing to parliament’s justice and correctional services portfolio committee, Lamola said the percentage of sentenced offenders in correctional programmes is expected to remain at 80%. The number of inmates stood at 162,875 as at end-March 2019, with bed spaces of 118,572 — a 37% level of overcrowding.

“We are mindful that the challenge of overcrowding in our correctional centres continues to undermine the creation and maintenance of a safe and secure environment for inmates and personnel at the coalface of service delivery, as well as delivering efficient and effective rehabilitation,” the minister said, noting that events at prisons demand that correctional facilities be transformed from being havens of drug and gang syndicates into proper rehabilitation centres.

Lamola acknowledged that there was a high vacancy rate among staff at correctional facilities.

Commissioner of correctional services Arthur Fraser noted that over the past 12 months there have been 56 prison escapes, with many escapees not yet recaptured.