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South Africa's private prisons are found to be a costly waste

By Estelle Ellis

South Africa's private prisons and maximum security prisons have turned out to be an enormous waste of money, energy and time.

These are some of the findings made by University of the Western Cape Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen, whose overview of policy developments in the Department of Correctional Services was published recently as part of the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative's series of research papers.

Sloth-Nielsen has called for an investigation similar to that into the arms deal regarding the tender process for existing private prisons.

"The reason for prison privatisation was mainly cost based," she said.

Privatisation, however, was costing the Department of Correctional Services much more than it had bargained for.

In 2001/2002 it was projected that by 2004/2005 the existing projects (those deemed viable by a prisons task team) would cost the department R538-million - up from projections of R143-million in 2001/2002.

"The department agreed that the decision had been unwise, and that Treasury had at the time advised against the transaction.

"The decision to undertake the private prisons projects was, however, a political one, according to the departmental spokesperson."

The official position currently appeared to be that no more private prisons would be contemplated because of the inordinate and unforeseen expense.

Sloth-Nielsen said the concept of C-Max prisons was introduced at a time when the Department of Correctional Services was characterised by the influence of American ideas in the penal sphere.

The intention was originally to create more of these facilities, she said, but this was put on the backburner during 2001 because it had turned out to be "a cost-intensive exercise".

According to Sloth-Nielsen, the new prison for "bad eggs", Supermax near Kokstad, was an even more lasting testimony to the influence of American penal philosophy and practice.

"No impact analysis or land survey was done, which explains why the facility has been built without a kitchen - the site is too steep to transport food in the normal manner.

"It cost R360-million to build - 155% more than budgeted for."
Supermax - reserved for high-risk prisoners - was a "veritable Robben Island on land" in terms of its inaccessibility for family visits.

In addition, the department had not been able to find enough "bad eggs" to fill the prison.

Now the department envisaged a series of "new generation prisons" for medium and low-risk prisoners.

Four would be built within the next two years. Construction would rely on local resources; empowerment and security would be people centred and not technology based, Sloth-Nielsen added.

They would be strategically placed in areas most affected by overcrowding.

The focus would be on rehabilitation.

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