September 11, 2018

Emily Nagisa Keehn Co-Authors Case Study on Reducing Overcrowding in South African Detention Facility


Emily Nagisa Keehn, Associate Director of the Academic Program, has recently co-authored an article with Ariane Nevin from Sonke Gender Justice on human rights advocacy to reduce overcrowding in South African incarceration facilities and its relationship to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other health outcomes. Part of a research series under the Evidence for HIV Prevention in Southern Africa (EHPSA) initiative, the case study focuses on advocacy and impact litigation directed at Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility, one of South Africa’s most notoriously crowded and inhumane detention facilities and where Nelson Mandela was previously incarcerated and developed tuberculosis. Keehn and Nevin place the attempt to reduce overcrowding within the broader landscape of criminal justice reform in South Africa.

Pollsmoor Remand houses people awaiting trial and sentencing; it has experienced acute overcrowding since the early 2000s, with its occupancy spiking over 300% capacity. As the coauthors state:

“In 2015, after years of lobbying to reduce overcrowding and in the face of inertia on the part of policymakers and legislators, civil society escalated its advocacy and mounted a constitutional challenge in the Western Cape High Court with the case, Sonke Gender Justice v. the Government of South Africa.

In 2016, the judge ruled against the government and made a historic order to reduce occupancy to 150% of its capacity over a six-month period. By February 2017, the Department of Correctional Services…had already taken steps to reduce overcrowding at the facility from 252% to 174%…This case study describes the complex change process that enabled this reform and the contributions of different forms of advocacy by key actors.”

This paper is part of the series Included! How change happened for key populations for HIV prevention, commissioned by EHPSA to Sonke Gender Justice. EHPSA is a multi-country research initiative that examines HIV prevention in incarcerated populations, adolescents, and men who have sex with men. The full series of nine case studies and a discussion paper is available on the EHPSA website.

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