12 February 2005 07:41
Were the SPCA to cram as many animals into a cage as inmates are packed into a prison cell, it would be prosecuted for animal cruelty, Pretoria High Court judge Eberhardt Bertelsmann said on Friday.
"The crisis in our prisons has huge Constitutional implications for the whole criminal justice system, and urgent steps need to be taken to address our entire sentencing and prison regimes," he said.
Bertelsmann was delivering judgement in an application by politician Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and broker Addy Moolman for leave to appeal against dozens of fraud convictions.
He said South African prisons, built to accommodate 113 825 inmates, housed a total of 186 546 by last September -- overcrowding of more than 63%.
Most prisons were, therefore, forced to house inmates in conditions "indubitably in conflict with the aspirational values of the Constitution".
Inmates were locked up for 23 hours a day in cells designed for virtually half their number.
Overburdened sanitary facilities, warm water supplies, electricity and other creature comforts were often in a state of disrepair.
"It is no exaggeration to say that, if the SPCA were to cram as many animals into a cage as our correctional services are forced to cram prisoners into a single cell, the SPCA would be prosecuted for cruelty to animals," the judge said in a written judgement.
Correctional services officers battled manfully, but were woefully understaffed, he added.
While 9 000 additional members were to be employed over the next three years, existing staff could "barely touch sides".
"As matters stand at the moment, rehabilitation in our jails is virtually impossible and most inmates who are sentenced to short-term imprisonment as first offenders are exposed to hardened criminals and are tempted to firmly set their foot on the path of a criminal career."
This did not mean, the judge said, that imprisonment should not be imposed on those who deserve to be severely punished and those against whom society had to be protected.
Rapists, robbers, murderers, syndicate criminals, habitual offenders and fraudsters have no cause for complaint even if the sentence "carries with it all the elements of cruelty that are inherent in our present prison system."
By the same token, those who did not fall into these categories should receive sentences of a different nature.
For these reasons, Bertelsmann said, short-term imprisonment was generally undesirable.
In Madikizela-Mandela's case, her initial sentence of an effective eight months in jail, was replaced on appeal to the Pretoria High Court last July by a wholly suspended one.
That decision, Bertelsmann said, was preferable to the alternative of reducing her jail term by another two or three months.
He dismissed the pair's bid for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. - Sapa