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Serious concerns over detention conditions

Human rights activists in South Africa are hoping that a chiding by the UN over the poor state of detention facilities will prompt the authorities to take immediate steps to remedy deteriorating conditions in prisons.

At the end of a two-week study the UN's Working Group chairwoman, Leila Zerrougui, noted that pretrial detention conditions fell far short of meeting the international standards South Africa has subscribed to, in particular the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In statement released on Monday, Zerrougui raised concerns that awaiting-trial prisoners often had to endure conditions "much more stringent than the ones for sentenced detainees".

She pointed out that detainees had limited access to medical facilities, which exacerbated the condition of inmates suffering from serious illnesses, at times leading to death. Despite overcrowding in pretrial detention facilities, the UN noted that bail was "seldom granted, even for minor offences", or exceeded what the suspect could afford.

Of specific concern was the detention of accused persons at police stations for months on end and the "high" number of deaths in custody. South Africa has the highest rate of incarceration in Africa.

Derek Mdluli of the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights told IRIN on Tuesday that he hoped the UN's findings would add more "punch" to an ongoing campaign to convince the authorities to improve prison conditions.

"Right now we have a detainee who has been awaiting trial for three years - this young man simply could not afford to pay the R500 (about US $80) bail - and this is not an extraordinary example, as we can find similar cases all over the country," Mdluli commented.

He added that the organisation was chiefly concerned about the high incidence of sexual abuse of young offenders awaiting trial for long periods.

"These first-time offenders are mixed with hardened criminals and cannot defend themselves when faced with sexual aggression. Also, the longer these youngsters are detained the more likely they are to get roped into all sorts of other serious misdemeanours," Mdluli warned.

Chloe Hardy, a paralegal assistant at the Johannesburg-based AIDS Law Project, said there was very little effort to ensure that HIV-positive detainees, or suspects who were on anti-AIDS drugs prior to incarceration, had access to antiretrovirals (ARVs).

"If you are a sentenced prisoner then at least there are mechanisms in place to facilitate access to ARVs, but detainees fall through the cracks. With the high rate of HIV in our prisons it is vital that correctional services takes immediate action to rectify this situation."

According to officials there are currently 187,000 inmates in South Africa's 243 prisons, even though they were built to house 114,000, with some 30 percent awaiting trial.

In an attempt to lighten the burden of overcrowding, South African prison authorities released more than 7,000 prisoners in June under a special clemency programme for those jailed for nonviolent and less serious crimes.

Although the clemency initiative has been welcomed by some rights groups, they have pointed out that releasing offenders without proper rehabilitation or reintegration programmes was unlikely to solve the problem.

"It is important that the government think about alternative sentencing methods that involve strong community involvement - to simply release those guilty of domestic abuse doesn't help anyone," said Arina Smit, a programme specialist at the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration for Young Offenders.

"However, if sentencing combines community service as well as group therapy, we are likely to see a rehabilitated individual re-entering society."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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