Mentally ill inmates could be next ‘Life Esidimeni’, says prison watchdog

If no solution is found to properly house mentally ill people in prisons the country “may be staring at a possible Life Esidimeni incident, which was a gross violation of human rights”.

Those were the words of Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services judge Johann van der Westhuizen, who was speaking at the East London Correctional Centre on Friday.

“All mentally ill persons are considered vulnerable in our society, irrespective of whether they are incarcerated or not. We need to treat our citizens with the dignity they deserve in order to preserve and protect our society in its entirety,” he said.

The national health department, the justice department and correctional services and non-governmental organisations took part in the seminar organised by the inspectorate, an independent government body that investigates prisons.

The inspectorate said the country’s prisons house 1,551 prisoners diagnosed with mental illness and 159 state patients (the latter include mentally ill people who cannot be accommodated in public health institutions). Gauteng has the most mentally ill inmates (452) followed by the Eastern Cape (446) and KwaZulu-Natal (249). The Eastern Cape has the most state patients (85).

The JICS said mentally ill inmates were often victimised, assaulted or even killed.

“They may harm themselves and other inmates. We recognise that the management of mental illness is a daunting task,” it said.

Prison staff were not adequately trained to care for mentally ill people and there were not enough specialised employees such as psychiatrists and psychologists.

Another problem was that “awaiting trial prisoners are also not that accessible, so there is not an accurate account of all inmates being screened and the possibility that many of these inmates are falling through the cracks.”

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