South Africa’s supreme court of appeal is set to rule on whether prisoners should have access to computers for educational purposes during their incarceration.

In two previous cases, judges have ruled that the present policy, which prohibits or limits computer use, constitutes unfair discrimination, a ruling that the country’s ministry of justice and correctional services is appealing against. Currently, in South Africa, prisons’ policy either prohibits or limits computer use by inmates who have registered to study.

According to the ministry, allowing prisoners access to laptops in their cells would create a security threat. The ministry believes that inmates could smuggle modems into their cells or use illegal cellphones to create hotspots.

However, in a previous ruling, acting judge Molefe Matsemela said computers could be screened, and the respondents had not provided any evidence of security breaches.

“Prisoners should be encouraged to obtain further education. Whereas previously the purpose of sentencing has been predominantly aimed at punishment, the importance of rehabilitation is now at the forefront. It is, after all, in the interests of society that ex-inmates are able to function fully in society,” Matsemala said.

According to the courts, “Prisoners retain the constitutional rights of an ordinary citizen except for liberty rights that are a necessary consequence of imprisonment.”

The appellants, including the ministry, however, argue that the rulings have “opened the floodgates” without giving due consideration to security issues and the practicality and ability of correctional officers to monitor computer use, especially in communal cells.

The case comes at a time when there is public outcry related to how Thabo Bester, a convicted rapist and murderer who managed to escape from prison by faking his own death, was able to run multi million-rand scams from the inside of a maximum security prison using a laptop he was given for his studies.

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