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Happy Freedom Day: Thousands of prisoners to be released today

EWN understands President Cyril Ramaphosa will announce the release of awaiting trial inmates for so-called soft crimes and nonviolent offenders eligible for parole, among others.

FILE: The Department of Correctional Services said at the weekend that the number of recorded COVID-19 cases at its facilities had increased to over one 100. Picture: EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - Eyewitness News can reveal that thousands of prisoners are set to be released from jail on Monday as part of the country's measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Several prisons across the country saw protests last week, with inmates going on a hunger strike to force government to release nonviolent, first time offenders, prisoners over 60 years old and those who are terminally ill.

The Department of Correctional Services said at the weekend that the number of recorded COVID-19 cases at its facilities had increased to over 100.

With overcrowding in prisons standing at 37% – social distancing is a challenge.

EWN understands President Cyril Ramaphosa will announce the release of awaiting trial inmates for so-called soft crimes and nonviolent offenders eligible for parole, among others.

It’s understood the Department of Justice has already done the work and is waiting for the president to make the announcement.

The decision will be in line with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ call for governments to reduce prison populations to prevent the uncontrollable outbreak of coronavirus.

South African prisons are overcrowded, making social distancing a near impossible task.

The number of inmates is said to be 162,875 - exceeding the accommodation capacity of 118,572 bed spaces.

Just last week, the inspecting judge of the judicial inspectorate for correctional services justice Edwin Cameron wrote a letter to Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, suggesting a carefully targeted, selective release of inmates including those over 60 years old, frail, sick and terminally ill, petty and nonviolent offenders, inmates with less than one year of their sentence remaining, and those approaching their parole date.

Last week, protesting prisoners threatened to strip off their clothes if government didn’t respond to their demands.

It now seems that won’t be necessary - at least for now.