SA's soaring prison death rate

But Frans Cronje writes the number of prisoners released on medical parole remains static

Data regarding prisons and prisoners in South Africa shows that prisoners are dying in the country's prisons at an alarming rate. The data raises questions about prison conditions and the management of prisons in South Africa. These questions have broader implications for the rule of law and commitment to human rights in South Africa.

Natural deaths among people incarcerated in South African prisons have increased by over 400% in the 11 years since 1996. On average only one prisoner is released on medical parole for every 20 that die of natural causes in South Africa's prisons.

In 1996 some 49 prisoners were released on medical parole while 211 died in prison of natural causes. In 2007 only 58 prisoners were released on medical parole while the number dying of natural causes increased to 1 056. The table below shows this data for every year from 1996 to 2007.

Natural deaths and medical releases of prisoners, 1996-2007


Natural deaths

Medical releases














1 087



1 169



1 389



1 683



1 689



1 507



1 249



1 056


Change: 1996-2007



It is likely that deaths linked to HIV/Aids account for the bulk of the increase in natural deaths. Certainly the figures track the increase in HIV infections among the broader South African population over the past decade.

It is also the case that the average length of prison sentences in South Africa has increased over the decade. In 1995 just 2% of sentences meted out by South African courts were for a duration of ten years or more. By 2007 some 47% of sentences were for a duration of ten years or more - a consequence of minimum sentencing laws introduced during this period. It is possible therefore that prisoners that would otherwise have been released, and then gone on to die at their homes, now die in prisons.  

Whatever the explanation for the spike in deaths the data nonetheless raises questions about the prison system in South Africa. There are four concerns:

It is not clear why more prisoners are not released on medical parole to die in a dignified manner with their families. The Department of Correctional Services has told the media that they do not track the number of medical parole applications. It is impossible to tell therefore whether sick prisoners simply do not apply for parole or whether they are actively discouraged or prevented from doing so.

A second concern is whether inadequate medical services or conditions in South African prisons are contributing to the increase in prison deaths. The provision, or otherwise, of ARV medication to prisoners is relevant here.

A third concern is whether sexual assault and violence in South African prisons is a contributing factor to the increase in prison deaths.

A fourth concern is a more general concern about whether the department is providing a prison environment that is conducive to the rehabilitation of prisoners. The alarming spike in prison deaths suggests that there may be broader social and environmental problems within the South African prison system.

Schabir Shaik's release from prison has refocused public and media attention on what is going on in South Africa's prisons. This attention has raised a number of red flags around the management and conditions in South Africa's prisons. The South African public should share these concerns. Some readers of this column will be bemused at its concern for the wellbeing of South African prisoners. Communities ravaged by violent crime may be tempted to regard suffering inflicted in the prison system as part of the deserved punishment of violent and other offenders. But it is no exaggeration that the state of a country's prison system is a very good gauge of that country's commitment to principles including human rights and the rule of law. Prisoners are at the complete mercy of the State and if the State keeps them in squalid and violent conditions it should serve as a warning to the rest of society.

Frans Cronje is deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in the Institute's only newsletter SAIRR Today, March 20 2009

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter