The national lockdown, in force since late March, is shining an unforgiving spotlight on systemic issues facing SA. One of these issues is overcrowding in prisons, which makes them a breeding ground for infectious diseases such as Covid-19. It’s a long-standing problem.

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that about 19,000 prisoners would be eligible for parole in a bid to contain the spread of the virus in SA’s prisons.

There has not been a major outbreak yet but fears that the Covid-19 pandemic could overwhelm correctional facilities, particularly because of tight spaces, are justifiable. Physical distancing and self isolation will be impossible in communal cells, which as it stands are overcrowded.

Initially, the correctional services department’s approach to combating the virus was to ensure that it did not make it into SA’s prisons at all, and when it did, that the spread would be limited and controlled.

As expected, the highly infectious disease did make its way into prisons. The first positive case was that of an official working at a prison in East London. Thankfully, the East London correctional facility in question is one of the smaller prisons in SA, and the rate of infection seen there has not been experienced in the large and highly overpopulated prisons in metropolitan areas such as Tshwane, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.   

Despite this, the number of positive cases in prisons has consistently risen. By Tuesday 336 officials and inmates had tested positive.

At a recent briefing, justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola gave more detail about the president’s decision to release detainees. Lamola’s constitutional justification for the move quoted the apex court: “A civilised and humane society demands that when the state takes away the autonomy of an individual by imprisonment, it must assume the obligation ... inherent in the right ... to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity.” 

It was apparent at the briefing that the decision was not taken lightly, even though countries across the globe have resorted to this same step to deal with overcrowding in prisons.

While it was always going to be a controversial move, the reality is that without it, Covid-19 could spread like wildfire in the prison population. Sadly, it’s a stopgap measure aimed at addressing the fundamental problem: our correctional facilities are cramped and unsanitary.

Overcrowding in prisons did not start in March when the state of disaster was declared. And if history is anything to go by, releasing thousands of prisoners will not solve the issue of overcrowding this time around, just as the cutting short of sentences every few years by the different presidents has not fixed the problem.

Prisons take the brunt when the rest of the criminal justice system does not function as it should, as people are detained for months and years on end awaiting trial if they cannot afford to post bail. This results in thousands of prisoners taking up space while the system grinds on.  

But even if all the systems work perfectly, whether it be in prisons or to help the homeless or to get money to the poor, these are reactive measures.

The answer to overcrowding does not lie in releasing prisoners earlier or cutting their sentences short. We need to get the economy going and put millions into jobs to ensure that more people do not commit crimes just to survive.

For the moment, however, given the state of our economy, eradicating inequality and joblessness is a pipe dream. The only thing we can hope for is that this crisis results in fixing the different systems, as the bare minimum owed to citizens is a functioning state.