Johannesburg - President Cyril Ramaphosa has authorised the parole release of selected low-risk prisoners to alleviate pressure at correctional services facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The process, which is expected to take up to 10 weeks, will see various prisoners released on parole to finish off their sentences at home.
The Presidency said in a statement on Friday that Ramaphosa's actions were motivated by the call from the United Nations that all countries should reduce the number of prisoners to allow for better conditions for social distancing during the pandemic.
Correctional services facilities are considered high-risk for the spread of the coronavirus because of the confined spaces that prisoners are kept in which makes it difficult for physical distancing to be adhered to. The department of correctional services had said on Thursday 172 cases had been recorded at its facilities across the country. This included inmates and officials. There have been 85 recoveries.
The country has a prison population of 155 000 and the release of just under 19 000 inmates will help decrease the pressure on the system.
"The president has taken this decision in terms of Section 82(1)(a) of the Correctional Services Act of 1998 which empowers the president to authorise at any time the placement on correctional supervision or parole of any sentenced prisoner, subject to conditions that may be recommended by the Correctional Supervision and Parole Board," the Presidency said.
The Presidency has stressed the release of inmates will only apply to low-risk prisoners who pose a reduced threat to society.
"The parole dispensation will apply to low-risk inmates who have passed their minimum detention period or will approach this period in the coming five years. This dispensation excludes inmates sentenced to life imprisonment or serving terms for specified other serious crimes, including sexual offences, murder and attempted murder, gender-based violence and child abuse," the Presidency said.
"The placement of qualifying sentenced offenders will take place over 10 weeks and will commence as soon as all Parole Board processes have been finalised and all relevant rehabilitation and pre-release programmes are attended.