THE conditions of remand detainees were highlighted this week by the Wits Justice Project.

Its conference, “Remand Detention: Challenges and Solutions”, took place on Wednesday at the Professional Development Hub on East Campus and was attended by various officials.

Jeremy Gordin, who heads up the project, spoke about the harsh jail conditions for remand detainees (prisoners awaiting the finalisation of their trials). “Justice delayed is justice denied. Remand detainees are still technically innocent… The aim today is to use a variety of perspectives to come up with solutions,” Gordin said.

He cited poor exercise conditions – where detainees are locked up for 23 hours a day – and no reading material as well as regular assaults by other inmates, gangs and even correctional service officials as some of the experiences which detainees face.

‘It could be you’ is the phrase the project is promoting to remind ordinary citizens of the seriousness of the situation.

Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula emphasised the changes that have taken place and future changes which will occur in order to combat the inhumane conditions.

“Remand detention has for a long time been the stepchild of the department of correctional services. This is where people are most vulnerable (awaiting trial).”

She spoke about the department’s investigation into over-crowdedness in prison   in February last year. Future initiatives include giving remand detainees uniforms which differ from the uniforms of convicted prisoners to avoid “the orange uniform which carries a stigma”.

Mapisa-Ngakula also commented on a forthcoming government White Paper to fill gaps regarding remand detainees.

Fusi Mofokeng, an innocent man who was sent to prison for 19 years, gave a brief description of the inhumane prison conditions. He was released on parole earlier this year with help from the Wits Justice Project.

He focused on the authority of gangs over inmates: “[We] went to bed without food, sometimes sacrificing it for safety with gangsters.”

Closing off the two morning sessions was a panel discussion with representatives from the CSPRI (Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative), Legal Aid South Africa as well as the Deputy Minister of Justice, Andries Nel.

“We must never forget that we are dealing with actual human beings,” the deputy minister said. “There is a great insistence on a tough attitude towards crime… the heart of this lies in building a stronger, more integrated, more co-ordinated justice system.”