MASERU — The government has released 303 prisoners to ease congestion in the country’s main prisons.
The prisoners were released on September 16, according to a statement from the Lesotho Correctional Service (LCS).
The statement, issued on Tuesday, said the release was in accordance with “Section 24 A (1) of Prison Amendment Act of 1969 and Section 17 of Prison Amendment Act of 1974”.
“This was done as a means of encouraging good behaviour among prisoners and reducing prison overcrowding,” the statement said.
It said 87 inmates were released from Maseru Central Prison, the country’s biggest jail.
Leribe had the second highest number of releases at 34, followed by Mafeteng at 32.
Berea and Mohale’s Hoek released 30 inmates each while Thaba-Tseka and Quthing allowed 12 each to go back home.
Butha-Buthe and Mokhotlong released eight each.
In Qacha’s Nek, 16 inmates benefited from the early release.
So did eight from the Maseru Female Prison and 22 from the Juvenile Training Centre.
The head of the LCS’ public relations department, Superintendent Teboho Masenkane, said he did not have the specific number of prisoners in Lesotho.
“We can’t give exact figures of how many inmates we have nationally because the numbers are always fluctuating. Just as we speak, I’m sure some are being taken in but normally it ranges between 2 000 and 2 200” Masenkane said.
He said there was nothing sinister about the prisoners’ early release.
“It is an on-going process and we engage social workers on the ground who go to the villages and investigate on the lives of the inmates before they were imprisoned,” Masenkane said.
“One other important aspect which has to be adhered to is to make sure that the crimes committed were quite petty and cannot endanger society in any way.”
Masenkane also mentioned that the person released should at least have served over half of their sentence.
“People accused of murder, armed robbery and sexual offences may not be released on this basis.”
The release comes barely a month after this paper revealed that the LCS was struggling to feed prisoners due to financial problems.
At that time human rights lawyer, Haae Phoofolo, said even before the food shortages the diet for prisoners in Lesotho was already way below the standard stipulated by the law.
“The only option the government has is to release the prisoners, but that is the worst option anybody could think of,” Phoofolo said when asked what the government could do to deal with the food shortages.
However Masenkane told the Lesotho Times this week that they have never had food shortage.
“There was rationing. It was just an adjustment; the scale was down-sized from the normal meals. This happens even in our families, it wasn’t anything serious.”
Masenkane further said that no inmates have had to skip their meals.
“They are entitled to get food and a breach could call for unwanted strikes within the holding cells.”
A 2003 report by the Ombudsman found that five prisons in Lesotho were overcrowded.
The report said Berea, Leribe, Butha-Buthe, Mokhotlong and Quthing Prisons were overcrowded by about 40 percent.
For instance Berea prison had a capacity of 150 but it had 235 inmates.
Butha-Buthe prison was built for 122 inmates but it has 202. Mokhotlong Prison, with a capacity of 80, has 150 inmates.
The situation was worse in Quthing where 137 inmates were crammed in a prison built for 60 people.
In Leribe a cell meant for 16 had 30 inmates.
The report also criticised the diet and living conditions of prisoners.
There was a shortage of uniforms and blankets for prisoners, the report noted.
It described the cell at Leribe Prison as “simply not suitable for human habitation let alone prisoners”.
The report warned that diseases like TB and HIV could spread among the prisoners unless preventative measures were implemented.