Imagine spending years behind bars for a crime you did not commit; knowing that the real criminal was still out there while you were rotting in a jail. This is the reality for many people who are locked up in South Africa’s prions.

“No one has felt the agony and anguish I’ve been through. I’ve endured horrors almost beyond human imagination,” wrote Thembekile Molaudzi in a letter to the Judicial Conduct Committee in 2012. Molaudzi was wrongfully convicted spent 11 years behind bars. 11 years he will never get back.

Journalist Carolyn Raphaely from The Wits Justice Project investigated Molaudzi’s case and along with her colleagues has since brought to light the cases of many others who were wrongfully convicted.

Why wrongful conviction happen
Sometimes wrongful convictions happen because of poor-quality detective work with little evidence, other times it’s because of outdated laws that might implicate the wrong person. The reasons vary.

In South Africa, no record is kept of how many wrongful convictions exist. Several civil society and legal organisations attempt to address the problem, but until government records actual numbers it is difficult to find an appropriate remedy.

Innocent until proven guilty
Many South African prisoners are in remand. Remand detainees are people who have been arrested, have been refused or cannot afford bail, and are awaiting the start or completion of their trial. By law, they are innocent, until proven guilty.

According the Department of Correctional Services’ 2018/2019 Annual Report:

– South Africa has close to 48 000 people in remand detention.

– South Africa’s total prison population is around 163 000.

It is not unusual to spend years in remand, due to inefficiencies and backlogs in the court system, and effectively doing time behind bars without ever having been proved guilty.

Conditions for those in remand are also often worse than for those who have already been sentenced. Take Pollsmoor prison in the Western Cape, for example.

According the 2018/2019 report by the inspecting judge for correctional services, Johann van der Westhuizen:

– Pollsmoor Medium B has an overcrowding rate of 200%.

– There are 29679 inmates and only 20779 beds.

Such overcrowding has led to the increase in incidences of abuse, the spread of diseases and cases of suicide.

Torture of inmates

When you hear the word ‘torture’, you may associate it with the apartheid era but the truth is that it is a reality for many in our prisons to this day.

In 2013, journalist Ruth Hopkins from the Wits Justice Project, launched an investigation into the torture of inmates in Mangaung prison in the Free State. She documented cases of electroshocking, forced injections with antipsychotic drugs, unnecessarily long periods of segregation and abuse of the inmates at the hands of the prison warders.

To date, there have been no prosecutions for any of the perpetrators of these crimes.

As Dr Zonke Majodina, Member of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights states: “In effect our Criminal Justice System is failing its victims twice; it protects officials from being held guilty of violating fundamental human rights, leaving prisoners and detainees traumatised inside a shrinking space for claiming their democratic rights.”

Human rights are inherent to all human beings and are afforded to everyone in our country, including prisoners. Things like wrongful convictions and abuse in prisons are not merely rumours, they are very real occurrences in the lives of people just like you and me. Holding our leaders accountable is an important step in making sure that our criminal justice system works for the people, instead of against us.

At the end of the day, it could be you.

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Read about why the identities of accused people are withheld here

Tell us: Do you think government needs to do more to ensure that our criminal justice system works effectively?