Ombudsman Finds Police Cells ‘Shocking’

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By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK The “shocking and horrendous” state of prison cells countrywide calls for an urgent revamp and even a total reconstruction of most of these facilities, as it constitutes a serious violation of human rights. This worrying situation is revealed by Ombudsman John Walters in his ‘Special Report on Conditions Prevailing at Police Cells Throughout Namibia”, of November last year. The ongoing problem of overcrowding at over 90 percent of the police cells worsens the prevailing appalling conditions under which trial-awaiting prisoners are detained. Findings by the Ombudsman’s Office during August and September last year show that overcrowding continually poses serious health hazards and results in disintegration of the building infrastructure and unhygienic conditions. “Many of the police cells were in a state of disrepair, while stagnant water and insufficient ablution facilities were unhealthy to the inmates,” reads the report, adding that an urgent solution is needed to address this problem. Due to budgetary constraints and resources “at most of the stations, detainees are without body soap for weeks or in some cases months”, while findings show that food is also insufficient whereby “at a large number of the holding cells porridge and soup are served every day, 365 days a year”. The report adds that such food gets served in “used ice-cream buckets”. In an interview Monday, Walters said overcrowding at most of the bigger police stations was so appalling that a recommendation was made that the worst-off holding cells like the one at Grootfontein be closed down immediately and the detainees be transferred to the Grootfontein Prison whilst complete reconstruction takes place there. “It is inhumane really. At most of these police holding cells, inmates sit on open toilets while the rest sleep next door. They use just a flimsy blanket to cover themselves when showering or using the toilet. It’s a human rights violation,” stressed Walters. Statistics show that while the Wanaheda Police Station has the capacity to keep 170 trial- awaiting prisoners, it currently accommodates 276. Noting that the conditions of female detainees at this specific police station need attention due to overcrowding, Walters suggested that these women be transferred to the women’s section of the Windhoek Central Prison. “The females are being detained like sardines with no natural light or airflow. This situation should not be allowed to continue a day longer,” said Walters. Windhoek Central Police Station alone has its own problem of having 190 detainees, while it only has room for 120. At Rundu Police Station, the five cells that were meant to accommodate 50 prisoners are now congested with 117 detainees in total, while the building is in a very dilapidated state. In terms of physical infrastructure “more than 80 percent of police stations leave much to be desired”. Still at Rundu, toilets are not enough, where inmates of cells 1 to 5 have to use one toilet and the general conditions of facilities are very bad. Preparation of food is unhygienic and the kitchen area needs to be upgraded and most of the utensils have to be replaced. At Outapi Police Station, the stove used for cooking is out of order and “pots are leaking”, while pests like lice and cockroaches are a big problem for inmates at the Rehoboth and Katima Mulilo police stations. A backlog of cases, slow justice, a shortage of magistrates, constant postponements of cases, repetitive offenders, inability to pay bail and delays in investigations are some of the contributing factors to overcrowding at most of the police cells in the country. As a result, some of the longest serving detainees’ cases even date back to the years 2000, 2003 and 2004 for both petty and serious crimes, like rape and housebreaking. Some simply stay there as they are unable to pay bail even if it is a small amount, like the San detainees at Gobabis Police Station. Ideally a person should only be kept in police holding cells for between 48 and 72 hours, but due to the numerous challenges facing police officers in having to deal with long detentions and in managing crowded numbers under budgetary constraints, the problem is worsened. Walters noted that the physical damage to most police holding cells is a result of boredom of inmates detained for a long time and their taking out their frustrations on the infrastructure. In addition, he noted that the current situation of a police officer looking after 200 detainees at a time is a cumbersome process that is demoralising at the same time. The ombudsman suggests major renovations and the rebuilding and abolition of most holding cells across the country, while concerted efforts must be made by relevant ministries to reduce the number of detainees as a matter of urgency. Amongst other reasons, the latest special report by the ombudsman came about as a result of the Minister of Safety and Security Peter Tsheehama’s expressed concern over the overcrowding of detainees at police holding cells countrywide, which is placing a heavy burden on the police budget. This was during his 2005/2006 Budget speech. The report has been forwarded to Minister Tsheehama for onward transmission to Cabinet for further discussion.