CAPE TOWN – Hundreds of prisoners spent the night in custody illegally after nationwide demonstrations by prison workers disrupted court proceedings. Members of the Police Civil Rights Union (Popcru) downed tools between 7am and 10am yesterday to highlight a range of grievances. Prisoners who were due to attend court proceedings could not be transported to their hearings. Proceedings at regional and Magistrates’ Courts inCape Town were severely disrupted while the Cape High Court had to porpone 11 criminal cases, hearing only one in which the accused was out on bail and able to attend court. prioners who did not appear in court yesterday because of Popcru action could not legally be issued with a warrant to extend their detention in prison. They could not be legally kept in prison without a warrant, Josua Greeff from Mathewson Gess told THISDAY. Only the court can authorise the continued detention of a prisoner, and that authority expires on the day that an acused is due to appear in court, Greeff said. The magistrate or judge then has to sign a warrant to extend the prisoner’s detention. According to section 159 of the Criminal Procedure Act should a prisoner be absent from the court proceedings, such a warrant can only be issued if he or she was ill. The warrant would also have to be accmopanied by a medical report. Greeff said he had dealt with a case in Wynberg Magistrate’s Court yesterday in which the magistrate refused to sign a warrant for the detention because of this provision, and it was noted on the record that the accused was kept in prison unlawfully. He said such a prisoner would be entitled to institute civil action against the minister of correctional services, Ben Skosana. If a warrant for detention was issued without a medical report, a prisoner could apply to the High Court for an order that will enable him or her to be released from custody Greeff said, adding that many prisoners didn’t have the means to do this. Whiel essentially services were maintained at prisons, Judge President at the Cape High Court, John Hlope, said the demonstration had a “devastating effect” on the courts. “The judges could not do anything at all,” he said. He advised judges and magistrates to postpone their cases. Popcru Western Cape secretary Mncedisi Mbolekwa said the union had aimed to disrupt court proceedings because it forced authorities to listen to their grievances. In a memorandum, the union highlighted a range of issues including allowances not being allocated, the department of correctional services not paying contributions to the medical aid scheme, correctional officers being remunerated as students despite finishing a probation period, and the financial management in the department as a whole. “We got the result we were looking for. Management can answer for the prisoners who failed to attend court,” Mbolekwa said. Popcru could yesterday not provide national figures of members who participated in the protest action, but Mbolekwa said 800 members downed tools at Pollsmoor prison alone. Skosana has meanwhile agreed to meet a Popcru delegation today to discuss the union’s grievances.