JOHANNESBURG, Dec 11, 2012 (AFP) - South Africa's highest court ruled Tuesday that prisons are responsible for protecting inmates' health, finding jail authorities liable for negligence in the case of a prisoner who sued them for contracting tuberculosis.
The Constitutional Court decision overturned an earlier Supreme Court of Appeal ruling which had rejected inmate Dudley Lee's suit, saying he could not prove that negligence by prison authorities led to his infection.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the prisons department had "violated its own health regulations, failed to perform its constitutional obligations and violated Lee's constitutional rights".
It called on authorities to "take immediate steps to remedy the horrendous conditions to which prisoners and awaiting-trial detainees are subjected".
Lee contracted tuberculosis while held at Cape Town's Pollsmoor prison, one of the country's most overcrowded facilities.
Right groups hailed Tuesday's decision as a "landmark judgement", saying it highlighted the state's responsibility for safeguarding the constitutional rights of detainees.
"Today's judgement is a major step forward for campaigns to ensure that prisoners' rights to healthcare and dignity are respected," said a statement from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies.
Tuberculosis infections are common in South African prisons, and overcrowding is often blamed for the spread of the disease.
The country has the world's highest number of tuberculosis infections, worsened by the prevalence of HIV.