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World Perspective | JUSTICE

S. Africa Puts the Shackles on Prisoner Perks

Inmates decry plan to curb visits and telephone calls. Authorities want to end perception of privilege.

November 13, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRETORIA, South Africa — Behind the walls of this city's maximum-security prison, inmate Moses Sipho Mziako has gotten used to a few comforts of life.

Four years into a 25-year sentence, Mziako likes to watch television in his cell. He enjoys the cakes and toiletries that relatives bring him. And he takes for granted his unlimited access to telephone calls and daily visitors.

Mziako has been in and out of court this month but not for the multiple counts of fraud, corruption and car theft that landed him behind bars. He is suing the South African Department of Correctional Services over a new get-tough policy that is making lockup a lot more miserable for the country's record-high prison population.

Mziako says the department's plan to take away TVs, radios and other "good-behavior" perks violates inmates' human rights. Other prisoners across South Africa agree, with several staging hunger strikes to draw attention to their newfound hardship.

"A television is not a luxury, it is a tool of rehabilitation," Mziako told a judge here.

Beginning this month, corrections officials are scaling back on privileges for well-behaved inmates at the country's 231 prisons. No more food and other goodies are being allowed from outside. Visits and phone calls are being curtailed. And prisoners have been given until the end of the month to get rid of televisions, movie-channel subscriptions, radios, hot plates, refrigerators, microwaves--even their pets.

"A perception was created, rightly or wrongly, that prisons are becoming like hotels and that prisoners enjoy more privileges than ordinary citizens," Ben Skosana, South Africa's minister of correctional services, told Parliament. "Oranges filled with drugs, chocolate cakes with concealed guns, staff members falling over birds and other pets while searching overcrowded cells for contraband, are simply examples of problems we are experiencing."

South Africa's prisons are overflowing. There are 146,000 inmates, about 50% more than the facilities were built to hold. With a rate of recorded crime that is among the world's highest, the crowding is getting worse: There are about 382 people per 100,000 population in South African prisons, believed to be the highest rate in Africa and behind only Russia, the United States and several former Soviet republics, according to informal surveys.

At the same time, prisons are facing the worst staff shortage in the country's history. The corrections department, with a staff of 31,000, estimates that it needs an additional 6,000 employees to cope with the prison population explosion, but there is no money for new hires. With too many prisoners and too few staff members, officials say, something has to give.

Not only has it been impossible to keep a watchful eye on comings and goings, but the inmates' jerry-built appliances are costing the department a bundle in electricity bills and even causing dangerous power outages.

"The whole issue is [about] making the prisons more manageable," said Barry Eksteen of the Department of Correctional Services. "The situation had become a security risk. Anyway, since when is having a television a human right?"

Some human rights organizations, however, have sided with the unhappy prisoners. Although they do not dispute the need for tighter security--escapes are a huge problem across South Africa--the groups say it is unfair to punish prisoners who have earned perks by playing by the rules.

"There is nothing else for these guys to do in prison," said Golden Miles Bhudu, president of the South African Prisoners' Organization for Human Rights. "They are smoking [marijuana]. They are having sex. There is nothing they can hold on to and work toward, and that is very detrimental to everyone. They feel they have nothing to lose."

Sarah Oppler of the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg said the crackdown is bound to be popular with crime-weary South Africans, but it sidesteps the real problem in prisons. Oppler, who recently published a study on South Africa's prisons, said the privilege system is flawed not because it is excessive but because all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, are equally eligible for the perks.

As such, "well-behaved" murderers and rapists are left to prey on less serious offenders who might otherwise have a better shot at rehabilitation.

"You can have a shoplifter next to a murderer because they have attained the same privilege level," Oppler said. "Prisoners should be categorized according to crime as opposed to privilege. If I were in prison, I wouldn't be fearful of the correctional officials, I would be fearful of the other prisoners in my cell."

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