Providing a 'correctional' service?

Overcrowding in South African prisons

Published in Nedbank ISS Crime Index
Volume 5 2001
Number 5, September - October

Overcrowding in prisons and the spread of HIV/Aids continue to pose a major challenge for the Department of Correctional Services. These problems will probably grow unless effective strategies are developed to reduce the number of awaiting trial prisoners. The department also needs to develop a strategy to control and reduce the spread of HIV/Aids among inmates.

The Department of Correctional Services is the ‘final destination’ agency of the criminal justice system. Being at the end of the criminal justice process it is keenly affected by the problems that afflict the rest of the system. Yet little is known about what is happening inside our prisons. Media coverage of criminal justice issues tends to focus more on the police and courts than on prisons.

The blockages in the criminal justice system contribute significantly to the current problem of overcrowding in prisons. This in turn leads to other problems such as human rights abuses, difficulties in managing incarcerated offenders, and the escalation and spread of contagious diseases.

Between 1996 and June 2001 the overall number of prisoners in South African prisons increased by 34%. The number of sentenced prisoners increased by 27%, and the number of those held awaiting trial increased by 54% (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Total prison population Dec 1996 - June 2001

The increase in the number of sentenced prisoners is directly related to the rise in levels of crimes since 1994. Police statistics indicate that for the 20 most serious crimes recorded by the police, levels increased by 24% from 1994 to 2000 (see Crime Index volume 5 number 4 2001). However, awaiting trial prisoners pose the greatest challenge to prison capacity. The increase in the number of awaiting trial prisoners is related to the pace at which cases are processed by the police and courts, as well as the inability of many alleged offenders to pay bail, even the smallest amounts. These issues are examined below.


In May 2000 South Africa had 236 prisons, comprising the following:
  • 8 female prisons.
  • 12 youth correctional facilities.
  • 89 prisons accommodating male and female inmates.
  • 115 male prisons.
  • 12 prisons temporarily closed down for renovations.
South Africa’s prisons are severely overcrowded. In December 1996 South African prisons had the capacity to accommodate 96329 prisoners, but were holding 125752 inmates. During that year the level of overpopulation was 31%. By May 2000, prison capacity had increased to 100384 prisoners, but actual prisoner numbers had also increased to 171880 inmates, amounting to 71% overcrowding (see Crime Index volume 4 number 4 2000).

This suggests that despite efforts by the government to increase occupancy levels of prisons, it cannot keep up with the fast increasing number of inmates. In December 2000 the capacity of South African prisons increased by 2157 beds. Nonetheless, and despite the building of new prisons and renovations of existing prisons, overcrowding continues to place a heavy burden on prison infrastructure and the capacity of prison managers.

Awaiting trial prisoners

As indicated above, the increase in the number of awaiting trial prisoners is far greater than the increase in the number of those who have been sentenced. In December 2000 the detention cycle for awaiting trial prisoners was 136 days. By June 2001 this figure decreased slightly to 134 days. This means that, on average, alleged offenders are held in prison for over four months awaiting trial. However, in some cases, they are held for years.

The high number of awaiting trial prisoners is an enormous cost to the state. The current cost of imprisonment is estimated at R88,00 per day per prisoner. Based on June 2001 figures of awaiting trial prisoners, this suggests that the state is spending over R4.5 million a day to hold those awaiting trial.

However, it is encouraging that between May and December 2000 the number of unsentenced prisoners decreased by 10% from 61950 to 55558. This decrease can probably be attributed to the release, in September of that year, of 8262 prisoners who could not afford to pay bail (of amounts less than R1000). Also in 2000, the National Prosecuting Authority doubled its efforts by increasing prosecutors’ hours of work with the intention of reducing the number of awaiting trial prisoners.

These efforts yielded good results, but more is needed to maintain the number of awaiting trial prisoners at an acceptable level. In recent months this downward trend continued, although at a slower rate: between December 2000 and June 2001 the number of awaiting trial prisoners dropped by 7%. Figure 2 nevertheless shows that since January 2001 the monthly downward trend has been slow but steady.

Figure 2 Number of awaiting trial prisoners, January - June 2001

One of the main reasons for the large number of people held awaiting trial is their inability to pay
bail. In June 2001 a total of 17588 (34%) of awaiting trial prisoners were being held because they could not afford to pay bail. Over 11000 of these had bail set at less than R1000 (Table 1).

Table 1 Number of prisoners awaiting trial who were unable to pay bail: June 2001

Below R300
R1 000–R600
Total below R1 000
Total above
R1 000
1 391
2 458
3 223
5 681
1 264
2 374
1 465
3 839
Eastern Cape
2 317
2 502
Western Cape
1 644
1 908
North West
Free State
Northern Prov
Northern Cape
2 342
4 208
4 709
11 259
6 329
17 588
Source: Department of Correctional Services, 2001

The majority of the awaiting trial prisoners who could not afford bail were in Gauteng (32%), followed by KwaZulu-Natal (22%), Eastern Cape (14%) and Western Cape (11%) (Figure 3). This trend correlates with the crime trends in the country where, compared to the other provinces, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape have the highest levels of recorded crime.

Figure 3 Number of prisoners awaiting traial who could not afford to pay bail, August 2001


Another major challenge facing the Department of Correctional Services is the control of communicable diseases and viruses, particularly HIV/Aids and tuberculosis (TB). The current problem of overcrowding facilitates the easy spread of communicable diseases among inmates. This problem is highlighted by the substantial increase in the recorded number of ‘natural’ deaths in prisons since 1996 (Figure 4). Between 1996 and 2000 the number of natural deaths increased by 415%.

Figure 4 Number of "natural" deaths recorded in prisons, 1996 - 2000

It is not clear what the causes of these deaths were. It is assumed, however, that they were caused by Aids-related illnesses, as the number of registered cases of HIV/Aids has been on the increase. Over a two year period from January 1998 to December 1999, the number of registered HIV/Aids cases increased by 108% (Figure 5). There was a 35% increase between January 1998 and January 1999, and a 53% increase between January and December 1999.

Figure 5 Number of HIV & Aids cases registered to prisons, 1998 - 1999

The spread of the HIV/Aids epidemic among prison inmates is worrying and requires urgent attention. Currently the department’s HIV/Aids strategy focuses mainly on providing care for already infected prisoners, awareness campaigns, training of health care and social service staff, and the management of HIV/Aids. Although these are necessary and important measures, the strategy does not address how the spread of HIV/Aids will be controlled in prisons. There are still no agreements on issues such as the testing of all prisoners, and the separation of HIV-positive prisoners from those who are not infected.

Needed: a comprehensive strategy

There is no doubt that overcrowding is the main challenge facing South Africa’s prison system. This makes a response to other problems like the HIV/Aids epidemic even more difficult. An effective interdepartmental strategy, involving more stakeholders than merely the Department of Correctional Services, is urgently needed. This is particularly important as overcrowding is set to continue. Some of the factors that will contribute to an increase in occupancy include:
  • Police strategies such as ‘Operation Crackdown’, focusing on large-scale arrests, which are likely to increase the number of people arrested and held in prison while awaiting trial.

  • The handing down of longer sentences.

  • Continued challenges when processing cases in court.
Sibusiso Masuku
Institute for Security Studies

Source documents:

Department of Correctional Services, Annual Report, 1999.

Judicial Inspectorate, Annual Report, 2000