Former prisoner gets TB and takes Government to court

GroundUp Staff
Dudley Lee at St Monica’s in Cape Town.
GroundUp Staff

Dudley Lee was arrested in 1999 and spent the next four years in Pollsmoor Prison, while he was tried for fraud and other financial crimes. About 70 court appearances later, he was found not guilty. While in prison he became sick with TB.

Lee is now the plaintiff in an ongoing court saga against the Department of Correctional Services.

“They stuffed my life up,” Lee says bitterly about his encounter with South Africa’s justice system. Lee is 66 and lives on his R1,200 state pension in St Monica’s, a home for the aged in Bo Kaap, near the centre of Cape Town. Most of his pension goes to St Monica’s leaving him with very little spending money. Before prison he used to buy and sell goods. “I used to make R12,000 to R25,000 a month. I bought BMWs on auction, fixed them up and sold them. I’d make R7,000 per sale,” he explains. “I built up a business.”

“Prison cost me a fortune,” Lee continues. “It’s expensive to live there. The wardens are corrupt and like a mafia. You’ve got to pay bribes to get to the prison hospital and back. Very few wardens did their best, but a few were really decent.”

Lee is currently battling prostate cancer. He has the face of a man who has had a tough life, but his weight is healthy. A photo of Lee from 2004, while he still had TB, shows him looking gaunt. He says that before prison, “I was healthy. I used to be an amateur boxer and I played golf.”

In 2003, he recalls, he developed a bad cough. At first he thought he had bronchitis, which he said he got every year. “But this didn’t feel right.” He was tested for TB in the prison hospital, but the test result was negative (meaning it did not detect TB). Then he got a hernia from coughing, so the authorities took him to Victoria Hospital. There the doctor diagnosed him with TB. At first he didn’t believe it, because of the previous negative result. After his hernia operation, he was taken back to Pollsmoor where he coughed up sputum that was sent to a laboratory to check for TB, a process that takes weeks. Only when that test came back positive did the prison authorities put him on TB treatment, he says.

Lee blames his TB infection on the overcrowded conditions in Pollsmoor. Often he shared a single cell with two other prisoners. When he returned from court hearings, he would be put into cells, meant to hold a maximum of 24 people, with over 60 people. Awaiting trial prisoners, like Lee was, spend 23 hours a day in their cells and only get to walk outside for one hour a day.

Lee’s case was heard in the Cape High Court. The court ruled in his favour, but the Department of Correctional Services appealed and the Supreme Court of Appeal overturned the Cape High Court ruling on a technicality. Both courts wrote scathing judgments in which they found that the state had failed to implement proper TB control measures. Scientists used the information from the court case to calculate that an awaiting trial prisoner has a 90% chance of contracting TB in one year. Their study was published in the South African Medical Journal last year.

Lee has appealed to the Constitutional Court, but fears the state is waiting for him to die before the matter is settled.

Lee says he was depressed in prison. One way he coped was to write affidavits and letters for fellow inmates, many of whom were gangsters. “Half the inmates are illiterate,” he says. “Why doesn’t the prison teach them to read and write instead of keeping people locked up for most of the day?” he asks.

Despite being found not guilty and contracting TB in prison, Lee has not received any counselling or compensation.

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TOPICS:  Pollsmoor TB

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