THE special remission of sentences for prisoners would help improve the living conditions and safety of inmates, allowing staff to concentrate on rehabilitation, Deputy Correctional Services Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi said on Friday.

He was speaking on the last day of the release of prisoners who benefited from a remission of sentences announced by President Jacob Zuma on April 27.

There have been questions about the effectiveness of remission of sentences in alleviating overcrowding in prisons, with experts claiming the problem was caused by the high number of prisoners awaiting trial.

There was also fear that some people who benefited from the remission would re-offend.

The department released a total of 43789 offenders during the 10-week period. Of the total, 25338 were those serving their sentences outside prisons while 17831 were released from prisons.

Mr Ramatlhodi confirmed that 90 people who benefited from the remissions had since been re-apprehended and returned to prisons, and 20 of them had been re-sentenced by courts. He said the department condemned every single act of re-offending.

The country's 241 prisons house 153556 prisoners, 45718 of whom are awaiting trial. The country's prisons are meant to house 118154 prisoners.

"The longest sentence imposed on any of the 20 who were re-sentenced was three years, which is an indication of the severity of the crimes. Nine of the 20 received the option of a fine," Mr Ramatlhodi said.

Mr Ramatlhodi said the prisoners who had been released were exposed to a pre-release programme to prepare them for their reintegration back into society.

He said there had been some misconceptions that remission was granted to alleviate overcrowding.

"Overcrowding was not a motivating factor in the decision of by the president to grant the remission. The department, however, welcomes the reduced overcrowding rate brought about by this special remission as it will help improve the living conditions of offenders in some correctional centres and it will enable staff to improve the safety and security of inmates. It will also assist staff to concentrate on rehabilitation."

The Democratic Alliance (DA) said the new minister of correctional services, Sbu Ndebele, would be briefing the portfolio committee of correctional services in August on the special remission process and the party would ask him detailed questions relating to the programme.

DA spokesman on correctional services James Selfe said the questions included how many offenders released had re-offended and for what crime, what was the nature and extent of pre-release programmes offered to such offenders, and whether the pre-release programmes developed for offenders released as part of the special remission of sentences differed from the ordinary pre-release programmes offered to offenders.

"A substantial number of inmates who were already released have re-offended and are back in prison. This points to a lack of proper preparation for their release and a hasty, makeshift pre-release programme. The minister must answer for the poor handling of the special remissions process, which has impacted on the safety of ordinary South African citizens," Mr Selfe said.

mabuzae@bdfm.co.za