The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) says Monday's attack at the prison in Port Elizabeth that left three inmates dead could have been avoided if policy was followed.
It's at least the fourth major violent incident in South African prisons in recent months.
The union put the blame at the doorstep of the Department of Correctional Services and accused management of failing to ensure programmes were followed.
"Popcru is saddened by the unfortunate but avoidable situation that took place at the St Albans Correctional Centre where three people lost their lives, while 26 others, composed of correctional officials and inmates, were seriously injured yesterday morning," said spokesperson Richard Mamabolo on Tuesday.
News24 reported on Monday that the department confirmed that three inmates died and 25 offenders and five officials were injured in the breakfast-time incident. A prisoner apparently stabbed a warder, sparking a free for all. Prisoners are believed to have been armed with shanks — homemade stabbing implements — and attacked the wardens, who retaliated.
There have been at least three other major incidents in the last four months.
"This is but a recurring trend which follows a similar incident that took place at the Leeuwkop Correctional Centre where inmates were involved in a violent scuffle with correctional officials and the Johannesburg Correctional Centre (Sun City), where five correctional officials were attacked and stabbed when intervening to halt a gang-related altercation."
Leeuwkop is in northern Johannesburg and Sun City is in southern Johannesburg.
About 36 inmates were injured in the Leeuwkop incident on December 23 after inmates apparently set cells alight. The five officials were stabbed at Sun City in mid-August. Weeks later, on October 26, inmates at Sun City started fires as a protest, including about overcrowding.
Mamabolo said the union was angered by the department's failure to put in practice measures for rehabilitating inmates while ensuring the safety of correctional officials.Mamabolo said the department ignored the plight of officials, whilst focusing on the privatisation of prisons and the out-sourcing of most services.
He said that overcrowding of prisons and lack of staff was a key factor contributing to the violence.
"With a prison population of just over 160,000 having to be serviced by 26,000 prison officials, the safety of these officials is highly compromised and morale is low in the face of a growing prison population representing the 11th highest prisoner population in the world in terms of sheer numbers, giving an occupancy rate of 133 percent. These calamities continue to limit prospects for proper implementation of effective programmes of rehabilitation as officials are simply unable to deliver comprehensive programmes due to overcrowded facilities coupled with inadequate human resources," he said.
While this year's departmental budget indicates that there are 42,000 Correctional Service officials, only 28,322 are part of the Incarceration programme. But Mamabolo said that not all of those were actually deployed in the prisons, as new staff must first undergo a year's training.
He said the staffing situation was made worse over the past year, as officials resigned to access their pensions following a national change in the retirement law.