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Prisoners win right to use laptops in their cells

Tauriq Moosa Legal Reporter

A prisoner locked up in a Johannesburg jail has won the right to use his laptop in his cell to further his computer studies in a Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment that affirms the constitutional right to education for all prisoners.

The case was brought by Mbalenhle Ntuli, a prisoner at Johannesburg Medium C Correctional Centre for robbery charges, who wanted to use his laptop to continue his studies with a distance-learning college. He bought a laptop with the help of his family, but prison officials refused to let him use it in his cell, citing the education policy that allowed laptop use for five hours a day, Monday to Friday, in a designated area.

The ruling has the potential to polarise South Africans, with some likely to see it as a progressive measure that respects prisoners’ dignity and promotes their rehabilitation. Others could perceive it as lenience towards prisoners in a country with the highest crime rate in the world.

In 2019, Ntuli brought a successful challenge to the high court, representing himself. The court ruled that the education policy unjustifiably limited Ntuli’s education rights and ordered that he be allowed to use his laptop in his cell, subject to conditions, such as regular inspections and no Wi-Fi.

Justice minister Ronald Lamola and the commissioner of correctional services — at the time Arthur Fraser and now, in an acting capacity, Makgothi Thobakgale — appealed to the SCA, arguing that the policy is reasonable and necessary for security reasons and that Ntuli had already passed a course without using his laptop.

However, the SCA dismissed the appeal, calling the policy unnecessarily restrictive and an infringement on Ntuli’s right to education.

Acting appeal judge David Unterhalter, writing for a unanimous court, said that there was no dispute from the government that prisoners had the right to education.

“Encouraging prisoners to follow a course of formal education,” said Unterhalter, summarising the government’s own view, “is not only a good in itself, but enhances the capabilities of prisoners, and their life chances upon release.”

It also is a better use of prison time and “may serve the broader aim of rehabilitation”.

The dispute concerned how education to prisoners should be permitted, not if.

He rejected the security argument, saying that the risks of laptops in cells were already present and manageable, and that authorities had not shown any additional risk that would justify “blanket prohibition”.

“The right to further education includes the right effectively to pursue that education,” Unterhalter wrote.

He ordered that the relevant authorities change the policy within 12 months, allowing for

prisoners around SA to use their own laptops subject to reasonable restrictions. In the meantime, Ntuli and other prisoners like him around SA can now use their own laptops in their cells.

Nabeelah Mia, head of the penal reform programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, who represented Ntuli, said: “Intrinsic to Mr Ntuli and all incarcerated persons’ rehabilitation is having access to further education. This judgment has recognised this and means that people who are incarcerated are not hindered from furthering their education.”





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