South Africa's Prison Conditions Are Rough, For Oscar Pistorius And For Every Other Inmate
On Tuesday, Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison for the negligent murder of his long-time girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The case garnered international media thanks to Pistorius' previous far-reaching fame — at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the runner became the first double leg amputee to participate in the storied games. Though Pistorius' fame brought him intense media and legal scrutiny during his murder trial, many South African prison reform activists believe it'll actually help him in prison — at the expense, of course, of other prisoners with disabilities.
During the week-long sentencing hearing, Pistorius' defense team tried using the runner's disability to secure a lesser sentence, such as house arrest and probation. Expert testimony alleged that prison would be too unsafe for someone who's a double amputee. Defense witness Annette Vergeer, a probation officer, said during last week's hearing:
[Prison] will not assist him but break him as a person. ... His disability and state of mind would cause his detention to be an excessive punishment with no benefits to him, society and the deceased's family.
However, in trying to strike the right balance between a "too light" and "too severe" sentence, South African Judge Thokozile Masipa handed Pistorius prison time. As she read her decision, Masipa said she didn't believe Pistorius' disability was an "insurmountable challenge" for the South African prison system. But what about others who do not have the money or fame of Pistorius?
The Apartheid-Era Prison
Following Tuesday's sentencing hearing, Pistorius was taken to the Kgosi Mampuru II Management Area — formerly known as Pretoria Central Prison — via an armored police vehicle, NBC News reports. The prison is infamous: During the apartheid era, Pretoria Central served as the primary execution site for government foes. Thousands of political prisoners were kept there on death row, and the gallows, which have since been turned into a tourist museum, once held as many as seven prisoners at a time.
As Kevin Ritchie described the facility's tarnished significance in a 2011 essay for The Star:
This is death row. Apartheid SA’s death factory, built to specifications in 1966 and commissioned in 1967. It’s pregnant with paradoxes. SA abolished capital punishment on June 6, 1995, in a unanimous decision by the new Constitutional Court. Apartheid’s last president, FW de Klerk, had stopped hanging as far back as 1989 as part of his raft of reforms. Two years before, though, SA was hanging people at the rate of almost one every two days – the third highest in the world. By the time De Klerk imposed his moratorium, death row was almost 50 percent overcrowded.
Overcrowding, Poor Conditions & Violence
Although the mission of Kgosi Mampuru II has changed over the last 20 years, the prison still has a less than favorable reputation. Previous reports have described the prison as dirty, unventilated and poorly equipped. Six prisoners there filed a court bid with the Pretoria High Court in 2013, requesting more humane living conditions. According to The Telegraph, their court papers alleged that prisoners received poor health care, and were living in constant fear of prison gangs.
Overcrowding also plagues most correctional centers in South Africa, according to recent reports. The 2012-2013 report from South Africa's Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Centers found that despite a slight decrease in prison population, overcrowding was still a major concern. The prison population would have be to reduced by at least 25 percent, the report said.
Prisoners were often neglected health care and medical treatment. But one of the most concerning problems of South African prisons was gang violence, which seemed to be increasing over the years. Unnatural deaths have also increased over the years, which raised a red flag for correctional officials:
The inspecting judge [of prisons] characterised 2012 as a year of uprisings by inmates in correctional centres. ... While gangsterism in correctional centres can be seen as a major contributing factor, amongst others, we cannot ignore that inmates have become frustrated with their conditions and treatment in correctional centres.
How Pistorius Will Be Treated Better Than Others
Although Judge Masipa stated that the prison should be able to accommodate Pistorius, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, project coordinator for the prison reform group Wits Justice Project, told CNN that prison is still no place for someone with disabilities. Erfani-Ghadimi said:
I don't think anyone with a disability necessarily will be able to be provided for at the moment in a way that ensures that they would have the correct medical treatment, that they have the correct physical structures.
Data compiled by the Wits Justice Project also shows that overcrowding has led to up to three inmates sharing a single cell, while communal cells meant for 40 people now have double the prisoners. Defense witnesses have argued that because of the overcrowding, it's not guaranteed Pistorius will receive his own cell at Kgosi Mampuru II — and if that's the case, then he might be more vulnerable.However, Erfani-Ghadimi and others have pointed out that Pistorius will receive much better care than the majority of prisoners with disabilities because of his status. An article published in The Star in April contrasted Pistorius' high-profile case with Ronnie Fakude, a 50-year-old paraplegic man who awaited trial behind bars for 28 months. Writer Caroline Raphaely stated that Fakude wasn't placed in a single cell, but forced to live with 87 other prisoners in a cell meant for just 32 people. Fakude told the court last spring:
I have no bowel or bladder control, which is why I wear nappies. I got TB while in prison prior to moving here, which means I have a compromised lung and am prone to infection. Paraplegics need special diets and I have indigestion because I have a bad diet. ... I have pains and pins and needles throughout my body because I can't exercise or get my physiotherapy.
For prison reform activists, the problem isn't the prospective treatment of Pistorius — it's what his treatment may reveal about the staggering inequalities of the South African prison system. Images: Getty Images (4)