Overcrowding and inhumane conditions in Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility

On 14 December 2015, Sonke Gender Justice, represented by Lawyers for Human Rights, launched a semi-urgent court application in the Western Cape High Court in response to the severe overcrowding and inhumane conditions of confinement for remand detainees (detainees who are still awaiting trial or are yet to be sentenced) in Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility (Pollsmoor Remand).

Since March 2014, Sonke has been tracking complaints of severe overcrowding and its effects in Pollsmoor Remand. Lawyers for Human Rights monitors overcrowding levels on a weekly basis and as of 1 February 2016, Pollsmoor Remand is operating at around 309% capacity, accommodating 2 985 more detainees than it is approved to do.

Overcrowding and poor conditions of detention

“The overcrowding is extreme. To know statistically that there is 300% overcrowding does not prepare the outsider for the practical reality. Again with understatement, it can only be described as horrendous.” – Justice Edwin Cameron, August 2015

Such high levels of overcrowding have grave consequences for the conditions of confinement and the treatment of detainees. Former detainees have reported appalling conditions of detention.

Detainees are forced to share cells built to accommodate 30 people with between 65 and 80 other detainees. The cells are so overcrowded that one detainee stated, “you cannot walk around without bumping into people”. There are insufficient beds, and detainees are forced to share beds or to sleep on the floor without a mattress. Another detainee informed us that many of them sleep on their sides on the floor and cannot turn to another sleeping position when asleep because there is no space.

Cells have only one shower and toilet, which are shared by at least 65 detainees and are not partitioned off for privacy. There is no hot water, mop or cleaning products to clean the cells or to wash bedding.

One detainee described their cell as always hot and claustrophobic and another told us that it “feels like there is not enough air in the cell to breathe”.

Detainees are often not let out of their cells regularly for exercise. One detainee reported that he was only allowed to exercise for one hour per month. Justice Cameron reports receiving similar reports from detainees on his judicial visit.

Overcrowding makes it hard to protect detainees from the transmission of tuberculosis as it is difficult to separate sick detainees from healthy ones. One of the deponents to the court case contracted TB whilst in Pollsmoor Remand. With regard to accessing health care, the same deponent was unable to access his antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for the full duration of his detention, causing him to default on his treatment.

It is also impractical to house sexually vulnerable detainees separately from sexually predatory detainees due to lack of space, creating an enabling environment for the perpetration of sexual abuse.

The unhygienic conditions in the cells have further dire health implications for detainees, such as skin infections and boils. Whilst Justice Cameron was on his judicial visit one doctor informed him that a common affliction in Pollsmoor Remand is scabies, most easily prevented with a hot bath. In addition, several detainees have told us that their blankets and mattresses were infested with lice.

The report on Pollsmoor RDF by Justice Edwin Cameron, released in August 2015, supports the reports of detainees. Justice Cameron found the conditions in Pollsmoor RDF to be ‘deplorable’, ‘profoundly disturbing’ and ripe for constitutional litigation.

In September 2015, there was an outbreak of leptospirosis, an infectious disease caused by exposure to rat urine, resulting in the death of a remand detainee. It has since been reported that remand detainees and sentenced inmates are being moved out of Pollsmoor to facilitate the cleaning and fumigation of the cells, but no further information has been forthcoming from the Department of Correctional Services.

These conditions are a violation of detainees’ constitutional rights to human dignity and to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. Detainees are constitutionally guaranteed the right, at minimum, to adequate accommodation, exercise, nutrition, medical treatment and reading materials. The Correctional Services Act further provides minimum standards for the confinement of detainees and sentenced inmates; however, the statements of the detainees indicate that these standards are not being met by the Department of Correctional Services. The Constitutional Court’s decision in Lee v Minister of Correctional Services found that the conditions in Pollsmoor are a violation of detainees rights to health and human dignity, and that the Minister of Correctional Services has a duty to provide adequate health care services as part of the constitutional right of all prisoners to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity.

In this court case Sonke is both mounting a constitutional challenge to the conditions in Pollsmoor Remand and seeking information on how the Department of Correctional Services plans to improve these conditions. Sonke would like to continue to work with the Department of Correctional Services and to offer informed recommendations on the steps towards providing prisoners with humane conditions of confinement. This litigation is a measure of last resort that follows years of unsuccessful engagement with the Department of Correctional Services by a number of dedicated civil society organisations.



Ariane Nevin – Policy Development and Advocacy Fellow, Sonke Gender Justice).
(Tel) 021 423 7088; (Email) ariane@genderjustice.org.za

Afrikaans and isiXhosa-speaking media contacts are also available on request.