The prisons 'are places of extreme violence, where assaults on prisoners by guards or other prisoners are common and not infrequently fatal', it says.
At about 393 per 100,000, South Africa has one of the highest prisoner-to-population ratios in the world. The figure for Britain is about 92; for the Netherlands, it is less than 50.
Until very recently conditions in South African prisons were shut off from public gaze through laws, backed by criminal penalties, restricting publication of information. That has now gone, along with the apartheid that kept whites and blacks apart, and the whipping of prisoners for disciplinary offences. The report notes that reforms are underway, but says there is a ceiling on these in the short term - because of the violence in South Africa with more than 20,000 murders a year (about 50 for 100,000 of the population, compared with 17.2 in the United States).
'These numbers are unlikely to change until the economic and social crisis in the townships can be addressed - something that will take many years,' the report says. 'In the meantime, there is little alternative to incarceration for violent offenders, the prisoner-to-population ratio will remain high, and overcrowding will remain the norm for most prisons.' Equally, it says, 'racism in the prison service, which remains a reality despite the legal reforms, reflects racism in the wider population'.
The report's recommendations, which reflect current deficiencies, include:
All cases of alleged beatings of prisoners by guards should be thoroughly investigated, with disciplining of guilty staff.
Statements by prisoners that they are in danger should be treated with the utmost seriousness and protection given to them. The danger often comes from the extensive 'gang system', with bands of hardcore prisoners controlling other prisoners through murder, rape and robbery.
The report notes that Human Rights Watch representatives had unlimited freedom to visit prisons - a level of co-operation with an international monitoring organisation unthinkable a few years ago. In return, the prison authorities were given a copy of the draft report and invited to comment, with not always happy results for the authorities.
For example, the draft report said: 'The provision making it an infraction to discuss prison conditions during visits should be removed from prison regulations.' To which the authorities replied: 'There is no provision in the prison regulations forbidding prisoners to discuss prison conditions during visits.'
The final report comments: 'During our 1993 visit to one of the prisons we saw and photographed a sign in a visiting- room specifically prohibiting any discussion of prison conditions.'