KwaZulu-Natal - Hundreds of disgruntled prisoners in KwaZulu-Natal, serving life sentences imposed on them before October 1, 1994, have vowed to embark on a hunger strike from Thursday to protest as they feel the parole board is not reviewing their cases.
If their grievances are not addressed urgently, they have threatened violence across prisons in KZN.
The call for the hunger strike was made by prisoners at New Prison in Pietermaritzburg.
In a bid to stop the strike, an urgent meeting of KZN correctional services management and prison heads took place on Wednesday night.
Lukas Muntingh, of the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, warned that the threats should be taken seriously because it could lead to a national crisis in prisons.
Some of the prisoners at New Prison said they had already served more than 19 years of their life sentences, and had not even been profiled as potential candidates for parole.
In 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that all inmates sentenced to life before the introduction of the 20-year minimum detention period on 1 March 1994 (implemented in October), were to be considered for parole.
Siphamandla Zwane, of Civil Rights Organisation for the Prison Population (Crop), said he had received complaints from prisoners at Waterval Prison, near Newcastle, Ncome in Vryheid, Westville Prison, Empangeni and New Prison in Pietermaritzburg.
He said inmates at New Prison had sent a memorandum to the offices of KwaZulu-Natal Correctional Services commissioner, Mnikelwa Nxele, pleading with management to review their cases.
They accused prison head, Eddie Abersalie, of ignoring all correspondence related to reviewing their parole.
Zwane said that a meeting between prisoners and Abersalie had been unsuccessful.
They believed a hunger strike was now the only way to get attention, Zwane said.
“Hunger drives anger. Anger drives violence. I have appealed for calm. But, the prisoners are threatening to turn violent and burn prisons to draw attention to their predicament. (Prisoners at New Prison) have already refused to have their breakfast this morning.”
He expected other prisons to join in the strike.
A copy of the memorandum had been sent to Vincent Smith, chairman of the portfolio committee on correctional services.
“It is clear that the inmates have been grossly prejudiced. If this situation continues, we will have no choice but to challenge the Minister of Correctional Services in court.
“They should be complying with their policies and court orders. This is also a violation of the human rights of prisoners.”
The hunger strike was the only weapon the prisoners had.
“This is a very hot issue. Prisoners have accused the parole board of being incompetent and not doing its job. It will take a lot of serious discussions to calm them down.
“Releasing prisoners on parole will also help ease the overcrowding in prisons,” Zwane said.
Nxele said he had not had sight of the memorandum and was unaware of the prisoners’ grievances.
“As far as the parole board is concerned, they have complied with the court order to speed up the parole of lifers sentenced before October 1, 1994.”
He said many had already been profiled and their paroles approved. Others were awaiting approval from the minister’s office, he said.
There were 70 applications sitting with the minister’s office for consideration, of which 17 were from from New Prison.
“Some have been released on full parole while others have been given day parole,” Nxele said.
“The court judgment was binding. We dare not go against it.”
Nxele appealed to the prisoners to call off the hunger strike.
“I will intervene personally. I am willing to listen to them. That is my job.” He declined to comment on the allegations against Abersalie.
With regard to the threats of violence, Nxele said it would not be condoned.
“We all know that problems can be resolved with talking and not violence. But, if the prisoners insist... violence will be met with violence.
“They may burn a cell or two and turn on each other. That will not help their cause. It will keep them inside for longer.”
Muntingh said prisoners serving a life sentence had a right to get clarity on their term of punishment and parole.
“Nationally (of those sentenced before 1994) there are more than 11 000 prisoners serving life sentences. The court ruling is confusing and needs to be explained to them. They cannot be ignored.”
He said prisoners in KZN appeared to be anxious as to what their term of imprisonment should be.
“The threats should be taken very seriously. I am also not surprised by all of this. KZN has had a history of poor management at its prisons for many years.”
Constitutional court ruling
A Mr Paul Francious van Vuren, an inmate sentenced to life, took the department to court arguing that he should not be subjected to the 20-year minimum period, but should be eligible for parole consideration in terms of the policy applicable at the time of his sentencing – 15 years.
On September 30, 2010, the Constitutional Court held that in order for the provisions of the Correctional Services Act to be constitutional it must be interpreted as stating that inmates sentenced to life before 1 October 2004 must be considered for placement on parole in accordance with the laws and policies applicable on the date of sentencing – thus agreeing with Van Vuren that those prisoners must be considered for parole after 15 years.