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

The penitentiary system

The Department of Correctional Services managed 243 correctional facilities as of 2017. Amongst them, 237 were active and 6 were temporarily closed for upgrades, repairs and renovations1. Prisons are old and dilapidated.

Amongst the facilities, the two super-maximum prisons place extreme limits on human interaction. The C-Max, in Pretoria, was constructed in 1973. Ebongweni, in Kokstad officially opened in 2002. It was constructed by Secelec consortium. It is the largest ‘super maximum security’ prison in the world. It has an official capacity of 1,440 inmates.

South African prisons were all designed similarly. The largest ones, in metropolitan centres, consist of separate multi-storey buildings with an inner spiral corridor. The buildings each house remand prisoners, medium security, maximum security, and female inmates. Some prisons consist of several single-storey buildings.

  1. Around 8,300€/9,800 USD.

  2. Department of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2016/2017, p. 24. 

Number of institutions with private management


/ Department of Correctional Services

Number of available places for prisoners


/ Department of Correctional Services

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) reported that 34,370 are custodian and security personnel as of March 2017.

Absenteeism rates were high: for the period 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017, around 27% of the misconducts by officials addressed at disciplinary hearings were because of absence or repeated absence from work without a valid reason or permission (32% the previous year)1.

This issue is mostly due to disillusionment: officers are not properly trained. They face overcrowding and a general state of disrepair in their working environment. Shortage of staffing also affects their working conditions: “During the day, when the units are short-staffed, the staff who are at work are often so stretched that after a couple of days they are exhausted and in need of leave themselves. They are unable to attend to all of their responsibilities because all their time is taken up with security tasks2.

Working shifts in prison are highly inefficient3. During the night, a single officer is responsible for overseeing an entire section. One section can house over 1,000 inmates. Responding to an emergency can take up to one hour.

  1. Department of Correctional Services, Annual Report 2016/2017, p. 108. 

  2. Sonke Gender Justice - Dissel, A., “By the Grace of God”, 2016, p. 73. 

  3. These shifts attempt to implement the “7-Day Establishment”. It aims to ensure full service for seven days a week rather than five days like it was before. Despite its intention, this shift system leaves facilities with a skeleton staff, often for as many as four days a week. 

Number of guards


/ Department of Correctional Services