Updated 04 December 2014

Depression behind SA bars

Legal defence teams clearly have a vested interest in painting a negative picture of our prisons, but how depressing are conditions in South Africa’s correctional facilities really?


On 21 October, in Pretoria, Oscar Pistorius was sentenced for shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013. Meanwhile, in Cape Town, the trial of British businessman Shrien Dewani continues in the Western Cape High Court. Dewani is accused of planning and organising the murder of his wife Anni on their honeymoon in 2010.

Oscar was sentenced to five years, of which he will have to spend at least 10 months in prison, and Dewani is also likely to spend a number of years behind bars, most likely in a South African prison. (There is however a small chance that he could end up serving his sentence in Bristol Prison if he is found guilty – according to Paul Hoffman, a former SA acting High Court judge.)

Both trials sparked a great deal of interest worldwide, and in both cases the spotlight fell on the conditions in South African prisons and what kind of treatment the two men can expect.

Read: Five-star prisons or hellholes?

After his sentencing Pistorius was taken to the Kgosi Mampuru II prison in Pretoria and put in a single cell in the prison’s hospital section.

As a double amputee and because of his celebrity status Oscar will probably receive far better treatment than the average prisoner can expect in South Africa’s “notoriously overcrowded, unsanitary and gang-infested” correctional facilities.

Violation of human rights

Dewani tried hard to avoid extradition from Britain to stand trial in South Africa, claiming that he suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress.

Oscar also claimed to suffer from “generalised anxiety disorder” and underwent a 30-days evaluation at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital.

Dewani’s legal team managed to postpone his extradition for three years, claiming that his life would be in danger if he were sent to a South African prison where he would allegedly face overcrowding, gang violence and even police torture.

His lawyers argued that his extradition would be a violation of his human rights under European law because of his risk of being attacked by other prisoners.

How bad is it really?

Undoubtedly defence teams have a vested interest in painting a negative picture of our prisons, with high rates of HIV/Aids, prison gangs, rape and overcrowding, but how bad are conditions in South Africa’s correctional facilities really?

Read: Prisons a hotspot for Aids

According to Department of Correctional Services statistics for 2014, there are 112 467 sentenced prisoners in SA of whom only 2% are female.

The prisoner population is 79% black, 18% coloured, 2% white and 1% Asian. South Africa also has the highest prison population in Africa and has the world’s seventh highest number of prisoners.  

In her article South Africa’s Prison Conditions: The inmates talk Amanda Dissel describes two prisons she visited in 1996 as “large warehouses where people are stored until their sentences have expired” and adds that “most prisoners . . . have nothing to do all day, and this state of inactivity continues for the period that they are in prison”.

Prevalence of mental disorders

In 2010 a study was done by the Department of Psychiatry, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, titled Prevalence of mental disorders in a prison population in Durban, South Africa (PDF) to determine the prevalence of serious mental disorders in a Durban prison population.

It was the first ever study to measure the psychiatric morbidity in a South African prison population and demonstrated a high prevalence of serious psychiatric disorders among prisoners.

According to the study, in western countries the rates for major mental disorders among prison inmates are considerably higher than in community samples and common disorders included:

In the study the Mini International Neuro-psychiatric Interview (MINI) was used as the instrument to screen prisoners for the presence or absence of mental illness.

The authors of the study concluded that the high prevalence of mental disorders found in the study was "in keeping with the significant high rates internationally" and that "of great concern is the large number of prisoners who have mental disorders but remain undetected in the system".  

Discrepancies between theory and reality

Under the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution all prisoners have the right:  

  • To equality
  • Not to be tortured
  • Not to be punished in a cruel, inhumane or degrading (insulting) way
  • To dignity
  • To exercise
  • To adequate (satisfactory) accommodation
  • To adequate nutrition
  • To adequate medical treatment

This is how things should be in theory, but the reality is somewhat different, and according to Carolyn Raphaely of the Wits Justice Project (WJP) the following are the greatest problems in South African prisons:

  • Overcrowding
  • Appalling conditions faced by awaiting-trial prisoners
  • Lack of access to adequate healthcare
  • Exposure to contagious diseases
  • A shortage of medications
  • Violence
  • Rape
  • Assaults
  • Beatings and torture

None of the above is a recipe for good psychological health and it is no wonder that suicide is the primary cause of unnatural deaths in South African prisons.

Read more:

What it's like in a South African prison
Welcome to Abracadabra Prison
Prison education stops re-offending

Prevalence of mental disorders in a prison population in Durban, South Africa
What will Oscar Pistorius face in prison?
What's life like in a South African prison?
South African jail "would kill" Shrien Dewani, claim lawyers
The Wits Justice Project
South Africa's Prison Conditions: The inmates talk
Report shows sorry state of South Africa's prisons
Red Ribbon: The rights of prisoners

Image: Depression and despair in jail from Shutterstock


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Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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