Oscar Pistorius case highlights plight of South Africa’s disabled prisoners
February 25, 2013 5 Comments
(Published in the The Guardian (UK), 22 February 2013, and the Saturday Star, 23 February 2013)
Detainees on remand in South Africa often endure worse conditions than convicts. This is one paraplegic man’s story.
PRISONER A is a paraplegic man awaiting trial who, like a third of all South African inmates, has not been found guilty of any crime. Despite the presumption of innocence, the country’s 46,000 remand detainees endure far worse living conditions than sentenced offenders.
With all eyes on the South African justice system in light of the Oscar Pistorius case, one man explains what it’s like inside the prison system for people with disabilities.
This is his story: “I’m a 50-year-old paraplegic and have been awaiting trial for more than two years since my arrest on fraud charges in December 2011. I can’t walk, I can’t control my bowel or bladder and have to wear disposable baby nappies which my family buy for me. I can’t feel a thing from my waist down. I’m paralysed from level four and don’t have a wheelchair.
“My co-accused all got bail. The main reason I never applied for bail was because I knew I couldn’t afford it. My family have managed to raise some money now and I’m hoping for a hearing soon. Even my 1,400 rand [£103] disability grant, which I used for my seven-year-old daughter’s schooling, has stopped. I asked a social worker here to help me renew it but she said she couldn’t because I haven’t been sentenced yet.
“If I use my [crutches] I have to pull my legs and throw them to the front. That’s how I walk. I was shot in my spinal cord, which was cut in the middle during a hijacking in the driveway of my house three years before my arrest. Before I was transferred here I was in Johannesburg prison, where the doctor prescribed a wheelchair for me. The doctor here says I must get a wheelchair from an outside hospital but hasn’t referred me.
“Living here is very hard. We are 88 men in this cell which is meant for 32. Sometimes there are more. Twelve people sleep in two bunks pushed together, that’s six on the top and six on the bottom. I have my own bed on the bottom, which is a privilege. Luckily, I don’t have to share because of my medical status.
“There are eight or 10 people with TB in this cell and four or five we know are HIV-positive. A guy with multi-drug resistant TB sleeps on top of me. I feel vulnerable all the time. Not because I’m threatened physically but because I’m always called names and treated like an alien. I’d rather die than be here.
“I can’t rely on other inmates for help because they change all the time. People come and go so I have to help myself. My upper body is very strong so I just pull my legs along the floor. There’s only one toilet and one shower for this cell. It’s so crowded people even sleep on ‘sponges’ on the toilet floor. Sometimes there’s no water in the toilet and it doesn’t work. The smell and the flies are horrible. The food in the kitchen is also covered in flies.
“It’s a big mission for me to get food. It takes 30 minutes to drag my legs to the kitchen. That’s why I don’t have breakfast, I just drink water. I only go to the kitchen once a day for lunch, which is at 11am. The warders in the kitchen won’t allow other prisoners to bring me food. They say I have to fetch it myself.
“I can’t get the right diet here. Prison food is not good for me or anyone with special needs like mine. It gives me indigestion. When I asked for special food and complained about my diet, I was told DCS [the Department of Correctional Services] had to get recommendations from a dietician. Then I was told the prison budget was 11 rand per prisoner a day – for three meals – and they couldn’t afford to give me what I need. Awaiting trial prisoners are only allowed non-contact visitors during the week. You have to speak to your family through a microphone from behind a glass and you get a maximum of 30 minutes. My family can only visit at weekends because of work.
“I made a special request for a visit last Saturday which was granted. It was the first time my wife has visited me since 2011 because it’s so expensive to come here from Joburg. It cost her 1,500 rand for transport and she also brought me 500 rands’ worth of food, nappies and medicine. The captain in charge said I wasn’t allowed food, only nappies. When I complained, he cut my visit short. I saw my wife for about three minutes.
“There’s no proper prison hospital here and prisoners die in the cells because they can’t get medical attention. When I had very bad indigestion and was shitting blood, it took a week for me to get to the prison hospital. I haven’t been given any medication since getting here, not even a Brufen.
“I have to wash my pressure wounds and sores twice a day. I can’t even get swabs or bandages. The last time I asked for Savlon, I was told to wash my wounds with salt water. I’m in constant pain. Sleep is the only escape. I’ve only seen a doctor here once, in September last year, and he prescribed medical shoes for me. I’m still waiting.
“The prison hospital is worse than the cells. The ‘hospital’ is just a normal cell with single beds instead of bunks. It’s clean, has a tiled floor and isn’t as crowded as a cell. That’s the only difference. Actually, my cell bed is better than a hospital bed.
“If you’re sick today, you might see a doctor next week. If you need a painkiller you’ll have to wait a week till the doctor comes. Then you won’t get medicine. Not because the doctor doesn’t want to give you medicine but because there isn’t any.
“The independent prison visitors of the judicial inspectorate do come here to take complaints, but then nothing happens. Some warders try to help me but others ask me why I think I’m so special and require different treatment. Living in these conditions means I’ve been sentenced before I am sentenced.”
Britta Rotmann, at the department of correctional services, said: “We are bound by various sections of the constitution and have very clear policies of our own regarding people with disabilities. Anyone coming into the system will be assessed and appropriate decisions made.
“Every decision must take into account the security and dignity of the person. We have no control over where an inmate will be sent. This is the decision of the judicial officer and an assessment will be made in terms of the inmates needs and what accommodation is available.”
Each disability is treated uniquely, said Rottman, adding: “We have blind people who are placed where they can be assisted and also people in wheelchairs. A judicial official will make the call and we will act on the warrant. If we have (the man’s) details we will investigate all allegations and assess whether he qualifies for a referral.
“The conditions of detention are our issue and I have said that medical needs must be met within the realms of possibility. Further comment and assistance to the inmate should he need it, would require his details.”
Carolyn Raphaely is a member of the Wits Justice Project, which is run by department of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand and investigates miscarriages of justice.