The Minister of Justice & Correctional Services and National Commissioner for Correctional Services have a year to rectify a policy which allows prisons to bar inmates from using personal computers in their cells.

The ruling has the potential to polarise the public, with some likely to see it as a progressive measure that respects prisoners’ dignity and promotes their rehabilitation.

Others could perceive it as leniency towards prisoners in a country with a staggering crime rate.

GroundUp reports that the SCA ruled that the policy is unconstitutional. It ruled that, in the interim, any prisoner who is a registered student and needs a computer to support their studies, will be entitled to use one in their cells, without a modem.

However, this did not mean that the state was obligated to provide prisoners with computers or that every course required the use of a computer in a cell. 

Correctional Services must revise the policy within 12 months, and in consultation with the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services.

The matter was brought before the appeal court by the Minister of Justice & Correctional Services, the National Commissioner of Correctional Services and the Head of Central Prison Johannesburg, against a ruling by the Gauteng High Court (Johannesburg) that the no-computer policy was both unconstitutional and constituted unfair discrimination.

The case was launched on behalf of Mbalenhle Ntuli who was serving a 20-year sentence for robbery.

Ntuli had complained that he was struggling to complete his data processing course because he could not work from his cell where he spent most of his time.

While conceding that prisoners had a right to education, the Minister and commissioner argued that allowing prisoners to keep laptops in their cells would create a security threat.

In yesterday’s unanimous SCA ruling, Acting Judge David Unterhalter said the parties agreed that prisoners should be permitted to further their education because ‘it promoted self-development and used time fruitfully’.

Unterhalter said the outright prohibition of the policy was an infringement of Ntuli’s right to further his education.

‘Mr Ntuli’s is a particularly clear case of infringement because access to a computer is so intrinsic to computer studies. There may be other courses of study where this is less so. But I observe that ever more educational materials are available in electronic form, and such materials are most conveniently and economically accessed on a computer,’ he said.

GroundUp reports that Unterhalter said the High Court was correct in recognising the constitutional infringement, but as it had not been sitting as a designated equality court, it should not have pronounced on the issue of discrimination.

The judge said that the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, admitted as an amicus curiae and given its interest in this case, should be consulted in drafting the revised policy.

The SCA dismissed the appeal and ordered that the Minister and commissioner pay the costs.

Business Day reports that Nabeelah Mia, head of the penal reform programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, who represented Ntuli, said intrinsic to his client and all incarcerated persons’ rehabilitation is having access to further education.

‘This judgment has recognised this and means that people who are incarcerated are not hindered from furthering their education,’ Mia said.

Full GroundUp report

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