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UJ Research Fellow finds that some SA women’s prisons have inadequate sanitation facilities

A researcher at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) found that sanitation facilities, food and healthcare are largely inadequate at some South African women’s prisons. Dr Caroline Agboola conducted in-depth interviews with ten female ex-prisoners released from prisons in Pretoria between 2009 and 2014, and of female prisoners who were about to complete their parole in 2014.

Her recently published research forms part of a wider project that examines the experiences of women prior to, during and after incarceration in South Africa.

Section 35(2) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa stipulates that all individuals, including female prisons inmates, have the right to conditions of imprisonment that are in line with human dignity.

The human dignity of prisoners should be respected, and that they should be provided with adequate floor space, food and diet, sufficient clothing and bedding, exercise, health care, and reading material of their choice. However, as the testimonies of the former prisoners illustrate, these rules and regulations are not always adhered to.

In discussing the conditions of their imprisonment, the ten participants focused on four broad themes. The first theme covered conditions including overcrowding, healthcare, food, hygiene and sanitation. The educational conditions they highlighted included access to education and reading materials. Occupational conditions found wanting included prison work and skills acquisition. Inadequate social conditions included exercise, recreational facilities and contact with the outside world.

Overcrowding and Sanitation

Overcrowding generates and exacerbates tension and violence in prisons through competition for resources, including toilets, showers, basins and bedding.

Interviewee Bonolo said that they actually fight in the showers, says Dr Agboola. Said Bonolo: “When the first warden walks past and says ‘You can go bath’, you have to go and bath at that time so as to avoid the rush to the bathrooms later, which may results in fights later.”


The state of healthcare in South African correctional facilities is reflected in the 2013/2014 annual report of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) in response to the requests and complaints made by inmates regarding the alleged failure of correctional facilities to provide medical treatment.

Interviewee Emelyn stated that “I never got any medicine from the Kas (Clinic) while I was there (in prison). I had an abscess in my mouth… I had to buy antibiotics from another woman (fellow inmate) who was taking antibiotics for her tooth that was removed by the dentist, because I would not have been attended to at the clinic because I smoke.”


The opportunity to study in prison was not without challenges. Some participants claimed that even though they wanted to enroll for formal education while in prison, they were prohibited from so doing by the prison staff. Others claimed that the short lengths of their prison sentences prevented them from enrolling, as only inmates with lengthy sentences were allowed to enroll in the prison school.

Other participants felt that favouritism played a part, and that even though they indicated their desire to enroll for formal education during their incarceration, they were not granted this opportunity because they were not one of the wardens’ favourites.

See the full research article here

Dr Agboola’s research was supported by UJ, National Research Foundation (NRF) and the University of South Africa (UNISA) and the. She holds a National Research Foundation Scarce Skills Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Sociology, UJ. She obtained her PhD in Sociology from UNISA.

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