Justice for those who are not Oscar Pistorius

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

33 thoughts on “Justice for those who are not Oscar Pistorius

  1. This is a horrible story! Can nothing be done? This is where a group of peple should act on these poor people’s behalf!

  2. We have had offers to help, from lawyers, doctors and even prison service officials saying they will intervene. We will keep you posted on progress. If you have ideas, or suggestions, or want to support the Wits Justice Project, which finds and takes up these cases, see http://www.witsjusticeproject.com

  3. This is not only a reflection on the callous nature of the human beings who operate within and at the fringes of our ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ systems; but a shameful reflection on what Editors and other decision-makers in the Media think of us as readers and viewers. Stories of the rich and famous sell! Heart-breaking stories of inhuman treatment of the most vulnerable leave us indifferent. They think that we have not become any more caring and compassionate than the days of the infamous “dit laat my koud”. This is in spite of the often-reported generosity of the same readers and viewers, to reports of strangers ‘in need’. So who are really the callous and bottom-line driven ones? Where are the ‘feel-good’ stories of every-day good deeds that their readers & viewers would love to hear and be inspired by?

    • You may well be right, Mario, but you’re also being disingenuous. If the papers were a) full of detailed stories about unknown people, and/or b) devoid of stories about ‘celebrities’, few would buy them. Sad, yes. But true, nevertheless. So what’s the answer?

  4. As someone wrote on Facebook where I’ve seen three copies this morning of this link – this should go viral.
    So many media organisations are covering Pistorius and this harrowing tale should not be allowed to be buried in the paper somewhere.
    I suspect in the wake of the all the ‘bad’ publicity, some feel it is too ‘depressing’ or ‘real’ and thus pass on it. After all, how can it compare to the death of a beautiful blonde Reeva by the good-looking famous Oscar?
    Well done for the story and please continue uncovering such important tales. I hope too that he is helped and others like him. Fraud is not murder…

  5. Oh my goodness, how I wouldn’t love to assist and rescue ‘PRISONER A’ if only he wasn’t really a figment of the imagination!!! This is all a lot of BULL and if it is not, it is the DUTY of the journalist to seek HELP and assistance for that particular individual simply because he knows…or is he waiting to see if anybody responds to the article? Why didn’t the journalist do anything about this person first and foremost before running off and printing out his column? Am I the only one that sees the beginning of a soppy story that has no foundation whatsoever? F*ck indemnity, the ‘prisoner’ already claimed he would rather ‘die’ than live like this, why would he be afraid of giving us his name and a real story to follow? This is the reason why the media is being attacked from every nook and cranny. Fact is the same as fiction to them and if they can make enough gullible people believe in their story, they have done their job.

    • Erno, We have checked him out as best we can, spoken to him on the phone, spoken to his cellmates, spoken to his wife, and have a photo of him (though not showing his face). We know his name, prisoner number, and other details but he insists that we do not identify him for fear of retribution. We have been in touch with the prison authorities, who don’t context most of the details, except how long he has been held (just over or just under two years) and his state of health (which they say is fine). If there is evidence that any of this is false, we would be eager to hear it, but all the evidence we have supports his story and I am sure the authorities would be quick to tell us if this was not the case.
      You raise an interesting issue about the role and duty of the journalist, particularly since the WJP is an advocacy project. Some prison authorities have agreed to work with us to deal with his situation and we are doing what we can. We have had a number of offers of assistance, and hope to get a doctor to see him as soon as the prison authorities allow it. We will be in touch with his lawyer to see if there is any assistance we can offer him. But as journalists, the key thing we can do about it is expose it and urge all those involved to play their part in dealing with it.

  6. All the people who support Oscar Pistorius despite him having been responsible for the death of a WOMAN, and the ones, who says he’s not getting special treatment, SHOULD read this article! No matter HOW we look at it – Oscar fired a gun, Reeva Steenkamp died because of this deed. End of story! All the judge need to decide is for how long he will go to prison!

      • But they would have properly represented him at the bail hearing irrespective of the fact that they don’t pay the bail money. Legal aid does represent indigent accused in bail hearings. The magistrate could have imposed extra bail conditions and they normally ask the accused what they can afford. Or did he apply for bail and could not pay the monies?

  7. The story of Prisoner A is indeed sad, but what we forget is that he is just an example of how our Justice system works. The whole Pistorius saga has just shown that we have developed a culture where the haves are treated better than the have nots:
    1. Pistorius was reported to have been kept in a single cell at the police station, unlike the have nots;
    2. All cases were cleared from the court docket so that the celebrity case could be dealt with speedily. Is it possible that some have nots case where just once again postponed to make place for the celebrity?
    3. The ‘incompetent’ investigator was removed from the case. Is he and similar incompetents however still investigating cases of victims who are not celebrities?

    Face it, it is acceptable to us in SA that some will be treated better than others.

    • I would like to point out that the investigator was not removed because of him being incompetent – but rather because he also had an attempted murder case against him that the prosecutors thought might harm their case!

  8. As a South African I am horrified by, and ashamed of, the facts recounted in this story and the recent story about the police who dragged a man behind their police van – to his death.

    I just hope the efforts of the WJP can bring relief to everyone suffering as a result of the cruelty and ignorance of the people who are doing this.

  9. Omw…why doesn’t every1 leave oscar alone…it seems Oscar is what’s selling newspapers..magazines and getting people to read articles!….just leave the man alone and let justice take its course!

  10. Hi Anton. I suggest you get the disability sector involved. They would take this case on and put enough pressure on to ensure action is taken. I suggest you contact Zain Bulbulia (Zain.Bulbulia@gauteng.gov.za) – he sits in the office of the President, Elma Burger (Elma.Burger@gauteng.gov.za) from the Department of Health, Lidia Pretorious (Lidia@dwcpd.gov.za) – from the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities and Ari Seirlis (ceo@qasa.co.za) – from the QuadPara Association of South Africa. We work with all of them and they are great! Good luck. Lisa

  11. I wrote an article on my blog last week which referred obliquely to Reeva’s boyfriend as a killer and an alleged murderer. I asked the question: What would happen to a business if its key operator was accused of a crime, and whisked off under the glare of unbelievable publicity to apply for bail.
    The question was lost on many who chose to insult me with suggestions involving buckets of acid, God’s plan for my trip to a long braai, the validity of my deceased parents’ marriage and some other similarly helpful ideas. This week I will refer my readers to this blog if I may, and see if I get similar response. I think we all know the answer.
    The fact that Reeva’s boyfriend has captivated the imagination of the world and routinely punctuated his tweets with suggestions of how blessed he is, curries special favour with so many who choose to ignore the fact that he killed someone. “Have you never made a mistake?” , asked one of my respondents.
    You see, special treatment no matter what; and from the most fundamental level. It’s like the Hansie denialists. Fallen heros can do nothing which should not be forgiven, while the cannon fodder of the justice meme are ignored, bullied and denied civility.

  12. I live in Australia and am so disgusted human beings can treat each other like this. Where is the compassion, justice, what an absolute joke. The prison, it’s staff, the courts, medical personnel should hold their heads in shame. It’s beyond comprehension, gutless, horrible, unspeakable. This poor man living worse than a discarded piece of rubbish. I’m so disgusted and saddened by this story. Please someone needs to do something. Paula, Melbourne, Australia

  13. All prisoners should receive the same treatment maybe our crime in SA will drastically drop. This goes for the rich, poor and disabled. My sympathy lies with all the victims of crime.

  14. Until South Africa’s justice system provides the option of a jury for capital crimes and defamation cases, it will always stand accused of inherent corruption. The test for reasonableness in our law should not be what a bunch of banksters behind closed doors think, rather it should be what 12 peers think or believe. This way, judges will not be able to feather their own nests while pulling the wool over our eyes. The system of colonial law lords needs to come to an end, the same way apartheid was brought to an end. Bear in mind the last jury trial was in the district of Kimberley in 1969 after which the jury court was abolished by the same National Party which denationalised black South Africans and de-emancipated people of colour.

  15. What a fantastic example of the power of narrative journalism. And how grossly unfair life is. I was in tears, just now. I believe that man would be dead rather than live in those circumstances, but I suppose he cannot even die with dignity. This highlights the hysterical attention to celebrities and sensation in a rather shallow journalism landscape. Call on Kenny Kunene to show his support when it is not in the eye of the camera.Thank you Anton.

  16. Have you tried to get this on the foreign news or papers UK/USA, as that seems to get SA’s attention as they would like to protect the image….?

  17. Prisoner A’s case is a perfect example of what i have been saying since i heard of this Oscar story. “Pistorius is rich, he will go free, those who aren’t just really have to grin and bare it” i suppose thats just how the cookie crumbles. If porisoner A’s story goes viral (which i believe it should) the logical thing for people in all places of the law enforcement hierarchies is to place a serious question mark on South Africa’s justice system. lets take a look at a simlilar situation, celebrity with a what i presume to be a substancial amount of money- JUB JUBwe can argue that his crime affected a larger group of peopel- a community. but it doesnt make the death of reeva steenkamp less of a murder than those of those children that jub jub killed. if the rapper is in there, what is Mr.Pistorius doing out here? i know for a fact that any prisoner would be satisfied with 1 million rand bail and a few geographical costraints opposed to conditions such as those of Prisoner A.

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