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S.African jail authorities hit out over virus protest call

South Africa’s correctional services fired a verbal broadside on Monday after a prisoners’ rights group called for protests to demand the release of inmates to help curb coronavirus.

Golden Miles Bhudhu, who heads the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (SAPOHR), said his organisation had called on prisoners to skip some meals — “a passive hunger strike” — to demand that inmates be freed to minimise viral spread.

SAPOHR are calling for the release of low-risk prisoners such as those who are terminally ill, non-violent first-time offenders and prisoners aged over 60 years, among others.

“In crowded, unhygienic and filthy cells, the spread of this virus presents a very serious threat,” the group said.

“Our prisons are not only overcrowded, they are chronically overcrowded and remain breeding grounds for the virus,” it said.

The government, battling one of the highest crime rates in the world, hit back at the protest call.

In a texted response to AFP, the Department of Correctional Services accused Bhudu of “instigating inmates to revolt against the state”.

“This is something totally irresponsible and reckless. And there is no need for such,” the department’s spokesman, Singabakho Nxumalo, said.

“The state will not simply open the gates for inmates to walk out. Such will be catastrophic for the country,” said Nxumalo. “Offenders have been removed from society for a reason”.

He said the government had a solid plan to prevent the outbreak of the coronavirus at prisons.

“Out of 243 centres, there is only one centre where inmates have contracted the virus,” he said.

South Africa has around 160,000 inmates at 243 jails, according to official figures, although data on overcrowding is not available.

So far the country has detected 99 cases of coronavirus in its prison system.

These comprise 56 inmates at a jail in East London in the south of the country, while the remainder are prison employees, most of whom work at that facility, plus several others at three other sites.

The health authorities have recorded a total of 3,158 infections in South Africa, the highest in the continent, including 54 deaths.