Year
Contributor(s)Derrick Thulani & Sasha Gear (Just Detention International)

Daily life

Most inmates are held in collective cells. The cells often hold two or three times the number of inmates for which they were designed. It was reported, in 2015, that over 60 people shared a collective cell with only 24 beds in Pollsmoor Prison.

Single cells are also available, but they frequently house two or three inmates. They tend to be reserved for:

  • inmates considered to be at risk in collective cells: gay, bisexual and transgender
  • former police officers or Department of Correctional Services officials
  • students or inmates very involved in sports
  • aggressive inmates1.

Toilets are often not separated from the rest of the cell. They are placed at the entrance of the cell and some cells do not include toilets. Toilets and bathrooms are often close to sleeping and eating areas.

Living conditions for remand inmates are frequently worse than those for sentenced ones2. Remand prisoners, in Pollsmoor Prison, have to share mattresses or sleep on the floor.

The social climate in the cells varies considerably. Each cell has a power structure and is led by inmate cell monitors, often referred to as “cell cleaners” – who may rule the cell by winning genuine respect and cooperation from fellow inmates, or alternatively, by generating fear, potentially in cahoots with, or as part of, gangsterism3.


  1. Thematic Report on Criminal Justice and Human Rights in South Africa, a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to the Initial Report by South Africa under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the 116th session of the Human Rights Committee (Geneva, March 2016). 

  2. Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2015/2016 p. 107. 

  3. Just Detention International South Africa – Sasha Gear, “In Their Boots: Staff Perspectives on Violence Behind Bars in Johannesburg”, January 2015, p. 19. 

In 2015, the Department of Correctional Services reported poor hygiene practices in food handling areas.

During the 2015/2016 period, the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) received complaints of food that was rotten, food quantity and quality that was often insufficient and meals that were sometimes inadequate for special diets based on religious and medical grounds1.


  1. Department of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2014/2015, p.67.

  2. Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services, Annual report 2015/2016, p. 107. 

Conditions may vary depending on the facility or even among blocks. However, inmates live generally in unsanitary conditions. Some facilities contain asbestos. Bedding is not washed and is lice infested. These living conditions, combined with overcrowding, contribute to skin infections such as rashes and scabies.

According to the JICS, many complaints of inmates referred to a limited access to hot water – or no hot water at all -, dilapidated infrastructures (dampness in the cells, unpainted walls, broken window panes…) and unsanitary plumbing conditions.

Toilets are not always in working order. They are not always separated from the rest of the cell. It takes a long time to get them repaired. Showers are not inside the cells so inmates cannot access them freely. It has been reported that, in Pollsmoor, 50 prisoners have had to share one shower and one toilet in the past.

The Deputy Minister of Correctional Services is responsible for prison healthcare, and not the National Health Department.

As of 31 March 20171, there were: 890 professional nurses (857 in 2016), 9 doctors (7 in 2016), 42 pharmacists (39 in 2016), 83 psychologists and vocational counsellors (79 in 2016).

All inmates should, in theory, be medically assessed when entering prison. This procedure is not systematically followed in practice.

Sick bays are generally in bad conditions and hygiene conditions are poor. For instance, the JICS found in March 2016 that, in the Bethuli Centre (a small rural prison), the medical facilities had no beds. Inmates in need of specialized medical attention had to systematically be transferred to the local hospital2.

Many inmates complain about the limited access to medical care. Prescribed medication is often delayed and sometimes not provided at all. In 2016, inmates from Pollsmoor Prison could not properly access medical treatment due to persistent out-of-stock basic medical and pharmaceutical supplies, including tuberculosis medication. A 38-year-old former remand inmate, during his four months at Pollsmoor Prison, in 2015, was “forced to default on his antiretroviral (ARV) medication, but also contracted tuberculosis (TB)”.

Hospitalisation takes place as a last resort and inmates do not stay for a long time. A detainee from Pollsmoor diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2014 was sent back to the prison and assigned to a collective cell despite the risk of contagion.

Sometimes, patients refuse to be examined because if they are given medicines, the other inmates would know they are sick and therefore, discriminate them.

There have been important developments regarding inmate health such as tuberculosis-focused interventions in selected prisons. Manufacture and distribution of condoms and lubricants have been organized3. Yet, only a fraction of the prison population benefits from these interventions since they depend on donor funding. Associations like TB/HIV Care distribute treatment and support prisons.


  1. Department of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2016/2017, p. 89. 

  2. Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2015/2016, p. 56. 

  3. Thematic Report On Criminal Justice And Human Rights In South Africa, A Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to the Initial Report by South Africa under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the 116th session of the Human Rights Committee (Geneva, March 2016), p. 30. 

Inmates seldom get exercise. In 2015, prisoners from Pollsmoor Correctional Centre stated they had exercise once a month. However, according to the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS), prisoners from Bethuli’s correctional centre received more than one hour’s exercise per day.

Only a few prisons are equipped with a fully accessible library. Access is often restricted on arbitrary and unlawful grounds1.

Only a few female inmates of the prison of Pretoria have access to reading materials during their incarceration. These materials are not always sufficient or adequate.


  1. Thematic Report On Criminal Justice And Human Rights In South Africa, A Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to the Initial Report by South Africa under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the 116th session of the Human Rights Committee (Geneva, March 2016), p. 37. 

Work in prison is possible but not mandatory. Workers’ rights are not respected.

Updated and reliable data about work in prison is difficult to find. Some of the data available, which go back to 2012, show that less than 10% of inmates had a work activity.

Medium security prisoners have more opportunities than the others. Sometimes they can work outside on agricultural projects. In 2014, Alex, a prisoner on daily parole, worked as an apprentice gardener at a church, two hours away from his prison.

According to the Department of Correctional Services, during the 2016/2017 period, 10,741 inmates participated in educational programmes1 (11,548 during the 2015/2016 period), and 10,099 in skills training (4,225 during the 2015/2016 period).

There were 515 educators and 83 psychologists and vocational counsellors as of 31 March 20172.

Living conditions are worse for inmates awaiting trial, especially in large urban areas. They do not have access to psychosocial attention and support or development programs3.


  1. Adult Education and Training (AET) and Further Education and Training (FET) programmes. 

  2. According to the Department of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2016/2017, p. 89. There were 504 educators and 79 psychologists and vocational counsellors as of 31 March 2016. 

  3. Thematic Report On Criminal Justice And Human Rights In South Africa, A Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to the Initial Report by South Africa under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the 116th session of the Human Rights Committee (Geneva, March 2016), p. 29. 

Prisoners have the right to practice the religion of their choice1.

There were 44 chaplains and 500 part-time spiritual workers to service DCS facilities as of 20142.

During the 2016/2017 period, 82% of the prison population benefited from spiritual services3.

According to the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS), religious diets were provided upon inmates’ request at the Bethuli’s Correctional Centre4.

In 2014, the Department of Correctional Services signed a convention with the National Muslim Prison in order to develop new structures. At that time, there were over 4,000 Muslims in prison.


  1. Correctional Services Act, Section 14: “An inmate must be allowed freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.” 

  2. Media statement, South Africa Government, 11 décembre 2014. 

  3. Department of Correctional Services, Annual report 2016/2017, p. 65. 

  4. Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services, Annual report 2015/2016, p. 57. 

External organizations may intervene in prison. For example:

Most of the prison population comes from impoverished backgrounds so inmates often do not have sufficient financial resources1.

Inmates may access currency via their relatives.

According to the organisation Just Detention, cases of prostitution in exchange for cigarettes or food are common.

According to the Department of Correctional Services Annual Report, 50 inmates escaped during the 2016/2017 financial year1 (71 for the 2015/2016 period).

Super-maximum security prisons:

South Africa has two “super-max” prisons: C-Max in Pretoria (Gauteng), with a capacity of 281 prisoners Ebongweni in Kokstad (KwaZulu-Natal), with a capacity of 1,440 prisoners. They are designed to hold male inmates only. C-Max operates since the seventies.

Security measures include prisoner isolation, cordoned-off exercise yards, plastic cutlery, specially developed hand and leg-irons, video surveillance, guards armed with stun guns, electrified riot shields, bullet and stab-proof vests. Prisoners do not have the right to shave or smoke.

During the six-months long, phase-one of detention, prisoners cannot be in contact with each other. They are locked up 23 hours a day. During the one hour they leave their cell, they are handcuffed and a guard escorts them. Ebongweni Super-Maximum Prison in Kokstad relies on long-term solitary confinement. All prisoners are housed in single cells.

Disciplinary measures:

In some prisons, strip searches and solitary confinement are used to punish prisoners. Less than 2% of reported solitary confinement sanctions are referred to the Inspecting Judge for review.

Solitary confinement refers to the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day. It is called prolonged when applied for longer than 15 consecutive days. The disciplinary punishment of “solitary confinement” was removed from the Correctional Services Act by the 2008 amendment. Placing a prisoner in a single cell for punishment is permitted when done with the purpose of restricting his access to amenities, and if necessary this could be done for 42 days. While the practice goes by a different name, it is still used in exactly the same manner as solitary confinement2.

There is a disciplinary policy that is used to assist in the management of sentenced offenders. Officials working in remand facilities complain that there is no guiding policy for the disciplining of detainees awaiting trial. While the relatively new White Paper on Remand Detention acknowledges this gap, and work has reportedly begun in DCS to address it, it is far from being resolved. In the absence of such a policy, officers in Johannesburg prison, for example, resort to moving inmates between cells as punishment. This is also practiced in sentenced sections, even though officers dispose of official guidelines on disciplining. In addition, in the Johannesburg remand facilities, some officers admitted using illegal force by beating up inmates who had transgressed the rules3.


  1. Department of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2016/2017, p. 50. 

  2. Thematic Report On Criminal Justice And Human Rights In South Africa, A Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to the Initial Report by South Africa under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the 116th session of the Human Rights Committee (Geneva, March 2016). 

  3. Just Detention International South Africa – Sasha Gear, “In Their Boots: Staff Perspectives on Violence Behind Bars”, January 2015, pp. 93-94