Sympathy for the Prisoner (Part 2): The people we love to hate

  • Nkateko Mabasa
  • March 23, 2018
  • Daily Maverick

South Africa needs to consider alternative ways to rehabilitate offenders. We need to look into better ways of punishing those who do wrong that would allow them to be better re-integrated into society.

Thulani sat at the bar of a pub he was about to rob, watching a soccer match. He took out his 9mm gun from his back pocket, held it in his hands under the counter and thought to himself, “This is the last time.” He continued, “this small job will give us enough money for the final big one. After that, I’m through”. Then he remembered that he has been here before. It’s 2005 and this is not the first time he says this to himself. It has been the “last time” for many years now.

In 1996 Thulani was arrested for the first time for fraud. He was 20 years old. He impersonated his cousin and swindled some money at his workplace. When his cousin arrived at work he was surprised that he owed his boss R5,000. The boss pressed charges and Thulani was arrested.

He was then incarcerated at Sun City prison for two weeks. “It was very traumatic,” said Thulani. “They stole my clothes when I was in the shower. They would beat us (newbies) and kick us and shout instructions we didn’t understand,” he said.

After an uncle paid his bail he vowed to never return to prison again. “I was fed up. I didn’t want to do crime any more,” he said. He went “legit” and decided to find actual work. He did odd jobs in construction, as a waiter and even as a gardener.

“They pay peanuts. It is hard work and as a young boy, you want more money. I thought to myself, this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life.” He went back to crime and found himself in and out of prison on several occasions.

But surely this time, 10 years later in 2005, would be the last time. His wife and newborn son were a big enough motivation to finally leave. He had two other guys with him at the pub. They sat at a table closest to the door, waiting for their inside man, a waiter at the restaurant, to give them the signal that its time. “We got a tip from our guy inside that the money stays for two weeks before it goes to the bank,” he said. The plan was to rob O’Hagans Pub and Grill in Rivonia during the cash-up time, just after they closed.

The signal came and the three men secured the restaurant, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. Thulani went to the back, pointed a gun at the cashier and took the money. The three ran out into the street. “We checked our phones and realised we had a couple of missed calls from the driver,” said Thulani. Their getaway car was gone.

The security guards from the next building had seen them going to the pub and called Armed Response security. When the armed response arrived, the driver ran. The security then waited for the robbers to come out. With no time to pull out their guns, Thulani and his friends immediately dropped to the ground and surrendered. They were arrested. And back to Sun City, Thulani went again. This time he was sentenced to 18 years.

On 2 September 1976, Jane Moyo, a freedom fighter of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), arrived in apartheid South Africa. She decided to stay for a while before heading out to Botswana, then Zambia and back to Zimbabwe. As a soldier, she was always on the move.

While in Alexandra Township, she fell in love with a man who was also an underground fighter for one of South Africa’s liberation parties and together they had a baby boy. One day Jane took her son, Thulani, back to Zimbabwe with her, after his father went into exile.

With a country still under colonial rule, Jane could not stay put. “I never stayed with my mother. She went back to freedom fighting,” said Thulani. “You know, as a boy you have that gap. Some of your friends call for their fathers when they are in trouble,” he said.

A study done by the South African Race Relations Institute (CRL) shows that the number of children with absent fathers rose from 42% to 47% from 1996 to 2010. And in another study done by South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in 2013 showed that 40% of mothers are single parents.

It is no wonder Thulani came back to South Africa in 1992 when he was 16, to search for his father. But what he found led him on a path he regrets to this very day.

His uncle in Alexandra, who was notorious for hijacking and fraud, helped him look for his father to no avail. After a while, Thulani stopped going to school because of depression. His uncle gave him an ultimatum. “My uncle said he won’t waste his money educating me because he can see what is on my mind,” said Thulani.

With houses in Orange groove, flats in Berea and Yeoville, the uncle made an impression in the mind of young Thulani. He wanted a piece of the high life. On his first fraud job with them, where they conned someone to buy fake diamonds, his cut was R15,000. He had no idea what to do with it. “I bought a sound system and spent the rest on booze,” he said.

From then on crime was his life. His final arrest at O’Hagans Pub and Grill, on 14 February 2006 after nine months in pre-trial detention, he was sentenced to an 18-year sentence at Sun City prison. He served nine years and was released on good behaviour.

Like many former prisoners, life outside prison did not present the freedom that Thulani wished for on the inside. With a criminal record, he struggled to find decent work. The delusions of freedom soon wore off and he found himself with limited options to put food on the table. However, as tough as life outside maybe, he was determined not to go back to a life of crime.

Zach Modise, former National Commissioner of The Department of Correctional Service (DCS) said on eNCA that “60 to 75% of those who have been released have come back for various offences.”

The DCS provides inmates with rehabilitation programmes that give inmates skills which will help them once released. They are trained as artisans and chefs. This, according to DCS, is aimed at building their entrepreneurial skills.

“Education will make the task of reintegration and re-incorporation easy – people without education and skills are not easy to handle or fit in society,” said Professor Themba Msimang, Committee member in Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Service.

While he was inside, Thulani became involved in an HIV/Aids awareness programme that helps prisoners test for HIV and how to live with it whilst inside. “I was already used to prison life, so I just decided to make myself useful,” he said.

After prison he started a non-governmental organisation, Zonk’izizwe Odds Development (ZOD), to help raise awareness about HIV infections and prisoner’s rights to proper medical care.

After doing his grade 11 and Matric in prison, he became a trained HIV facilitator. “I saw that education can help,” said Thulani. He facilitated a five-day programme that ends with a prisoner getting a certificate for participation. His class had an average of 30 inmates “People are still scared to test and they have no clue how HIV gets into the body,” he said.

Although his non-profit allows him to go around the country speaking to inmates, at home they become increasingly frustrated by his unemployment. “They even ask if I actually want a job because I haven’t worked since I got released,” he said.

Thulani finds fulfilment in his volunteer work, however, his financial situation coupled with a criminal record puts him in a desperate situation to provide for his family.

On her paper, Offender Rehabilitation and Reintegration: A South African Perspective, Shanta Singh, a professor of Criminology and Forensic Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, writes:

“The fear of crime and concerns for the victim and public safety has begun to dominate government policy with a ‘crime consciousness’ being an important factor. This has eventually led to frustration and the calls for harsher punishment in response to the danger presented by crime as well as an increase in measures to avoid crime.”

This is usually a normal response in a society so plagued with crime. The statistics are high and alarming.

In South Africa, common robbery at non-residential premises rose by 5% in 2017 seating at 20,680 robberies just last year alone, according to the crime statistics published by the South African Police Service. While robbery at residential premises rose by 7.3% at 22,342.

No wonder that there is a heavy-handedness by politicians in the approach to curbing crime. There is no sympathy for convicted criminals and ex-convicts are still suspect. If you are someone who has been a victim of a robbery or have been mugged before, you are less prone to give a thought to what happens a convicted criminal in prison and even after they are rehabilitated.

According to the Just Detention International over 300 000 prisoners are released each year from prison. With an unemployment rate of 27% in South Africa and with a criminal record as an ex-convict, where are these rehabilitated persons supposed to get work?

The criminal record often feels an extra punishment, a life sentence. Do prisons do more harm than the actual intended good?

Prison overcrowding, which impacts the prisons efficiency, is more prevalent in Gauteng and the Western Cape according to the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Service (JICS).

“Overcrowding undermines the ability for Department of Correctional Service (DCS) to provide inmates with humane conditions. As such, it is incumbent on the criminal justice sector, from the courts to the SAPS, to relook their strategies,” said JICS on their 2015/2016 report

A huge impact on overcrowding has to do with wrongful arrests, prolonged remand and a “crime consciousness” that focuses on more harsh punishments than reintegrating offenders into society.

Shang notes in her paper that, “In South Africa, rehabilitation and reintegration services are only available to inmates serving sentences of 24 months or longer. Awaiting trial offenders (who comprise approximately a third of the prison population are not provided with any facilities for rehabilitation or reintegration because they are still awaiting their trial. This period of waiting could sometimes exceed two years due to the bottleneck within the criminal justice system.”

Furthermore, “It is estimated that 10 to 15% of sentenced offenders have regular access to work and rehabilitation programmes,” writes Shangh.

Inhumane conditions, brought on by overcrowding, further lead to the DCS’ inability to rehabilitate inmates. As a society, we have a social contract that those who are found to be criminals and delinquents amongst us will be imprisoned by the state both as a form of punishment and for rehabilitation. But what if the prison system is not working? What then do we do with these offenders?

If a prisoner cannot survive in a place of rehabilitation what more hope is there for them outside where society has a huge stigma on ex-offenders. It seems correctional facilities lack the capacity to rehabilitate society’s outcasts.

“I don’t like to use the word rehabilitation,” said Baz Dreisinger, Founding Academic Director, at Prison-to-College Pipeline “Because it assumes people have been habilitated, to begin with.” Which raises the question of society’s role in producing the criminals that we so despise. People come from families in communities.

Prince Nare, a Senior Programme Officer at the Just Detention Centre, while speaking on torture and sexual abuse that happens in prisons noted that “something happens to the human psyche that leads to something that is not good” when under such physical and mental strains. “There are no winners in an act of torture,” said Nare.

These conditions make it difficult for inmates to serve their time in a prison cell already meant to limit their access to certain comforts and the outside world. It further limits their rehabilitation back to a society in order to make a meaningful contribution.

According to the World Economic Forum, the number of prisoners in the Netherlands fell from 20,463 in 2006 to 10,102 in 2016. This means over a 50% of their prisons closed in a space of 10 years.

The Netherland’s low incarceration rate is attributed to relaxed “drug laws, with a focus on rehabilitation and an electronic ankle monitor system,” said the WEF.

South Africa needs to consider alternative ways to rehabilitate offenders. We need to look into better ways of punishing those who do wrong that would allow them to be better re-integrated into society.

Many activists have campaigned for the scrapping of the box to disclose a criminal record in employment forms. While others seek a more radical approach to abolish prisons entirely.

What will be the path we take in rehabilitating those who have wronged society?

Originally posted here