We can pontificate on whether Oscar Pistorius gets special treatment in our courts, or whether his access to wealth and influence gets him a better quality of justice. Or we can listen to the story of another disabled accused, Prisoner A, a real person who I have to protect because he is at the mercy of the same justice system as Pistorius.
Prisoner A has been in custody awaiting trial for more than two years. He is charged with fraud, a non-violent crime, and should have got bail. His co-accused are out on bail. But he never applied because he did not have the money.
He is a paraplegic, injured in a shooting accident some years ago. He does not have a wheelchair in prison. He has crutches, but has to throw each leg forward with his arms, making it all very slow and difficult. He cannot control his bladder, so he has to wear a nappy. He only eats once a day because he cannot get to the kitchen and other prisoners are forbidden from bringing him his food. He shares a cell – designed for 32 people – with 87 others, 12 sleeping on two double bunks pushed together, others sleeping on foam on the floor, including in the communal cell toilet area. Because of his condition, he has his own single bed.
The cell itself is a breeding ground for further medical problems. There are 8 to 10 men in it with TB and one, according to Prisoner A, who has multi-drug resistant TB sleeping on the bunk above him.
Because he is in prison and unable to present himself for examination, his disability grant – which paid for his seven-year-old daughter’s schooling – has stopped. The prison social worker will not help him get it renewed because he is awaiting trial, and it is only done for sentenced prisoners.
“I’d rather die than be here,” he says.
There is no permanent doctor in his prison and a converted cell with single beds serves as the sick room. Last time he needed medical attention, it took a week to get it. And even if a doctor prescribes medicine, he can seldom get it because it just isn’t available.
His wife visited him last week, the first time since 2011 because the prison is far from his home and it cost her R1 500 for transport. She brought R500 of food, nappies and medicine. She was only allowed to give him the nappies and when he complained, the visit was cut short – just three minutes.
“I’m in constant pain. Sleep is the only escape. I’ve only seen a doctor here once, in September last year, and he prescribed medical shoes for me. I’m still waiting,” he says.
Prisoner A was found and interviewed by the Wits Justice Project (WJP), which writes about and campaigns for improvement in our justice system, particularly the conditions of awaiting trail detainees, like Prisoner A and – for a few days last week – Pistorius. There are 46 000 of them, living in grossly overcrowded conditions, often worse than those of prisoners found guilty and already serving their sentences. Carolyn Raphaely of the WJP, who set up the interview and photographs of Prisoner A, is relentless in her pursuit of stories like his.
When I heard Prisoner A’s story, I thought that the media would grab it as a sidebar to the Pistorius case. It presented a rare chance to highlight the conditions and treatment of awaiting trial prisoners. It was a pity we could not name him or the prison he was in, but he was extremely nervous that the prison authorities would punish him for telling his story. But there was no doubting the authenticity of his story.
We offered Prisoner A’s tale, told in his own voice, to a daily newspaper. They did not have the space. We offered it to a major Sunday paper, and they were not interested. The Saturday Star ran it, and although they buried it far inside the paper, the WP has had a number of offers of help for Prisoner A as a result. Sadly, the paper did not syndicate it to their group, but the Guardian of London put it up on their Africa Network site.
I don’t want to beat around the bush. The courts should have given Prisoner A bail of R1, and the magistrate or prosecutor should have paid it and got him out. Correctional Services should have recently been given the power to give him medical parole and this is a case where it should be used. The doctors who visited the prison should have acted, as should the social workers, never mind the head of that prison.
Pistorius’s spin doctors should take on this case, and Pistorius, or his friend and former prisoner, Kenny Kunene, should pay. Prisoner A needs it more than Pistorius.
The media should cover it the way they covered Pistorius: endlessly, relentlessly and exhaustively. Throw out the ponderous pieces on the quality of Pistorius’ justice and take up Prisoner A’s case – which says everything we need to say about our justice system.
Then there might be hope for justice for those who do not have the same resources, support and attention of a Pistorius.
*This column first appeared in Business Day 1/3/2013