How our focus on punishment fails society and inmates

April 12, 2018

By Azarrah Abdul Karrim

While many prisoners in SA live in overcrowded, inhumane conditions often inconsistent with human rights, billions of taxpayer rands are invested in prisons every year.

However, conditions in prisons and reoffending rates contribute to a broken system which, if not addressed, could cost taxpayers more in the long run and aggravate the dire state of our prisons. There is very little value for money.

The Department of Correctional Services received R22bn in the 2018 budget, the same amount allocated to the Department of Basic Education. However, spending could be reduced if funding is invested wisely.

The correctional services’ budget reveals an incarceration philosophy apparently aimed at keeping inmates behind bars, rather than attempting to correct behaviour by providing a “safe, secure and humane environment which allows for optimal rehabilitation and reduced repeat offending”, as stipulated in the department’s mandate.

The department’s incarceration programme’s top three sub-programmes receive the lion’s share of the budget. Security operations received R7.3bn to keep prison employees, inmates and the public safe. The department provides prison warders with equipment such as body armour, leg irons, handcuffs, batons and pepper spray. Its emergency support team is also equipped with electro-shock shields and other supposedly nonlethal weapons.

The department’s facilities operation, aimed at creating humane conditions of incarceration, received R4.1m. Offender management, which funds administrative tasks such as parole considerations and correctional supervision after the offender is released on parole, received R1.8m.

The rehabilitation programme aims to successfully reintegrate offenders back into society and reduce reoffending by tackling behavioural and psychological issues.

Correctional programmes targeting “elements associated with offending behaviour, focusing on the offences for which persons are incarcerated” received R506,279.

Offender development received R874,665 to provide inmates “with opportunities for skills and social development”.

Psychological, social and spiritual services received R441,469 (excluding salaries) to facilitate “social functioning and spiritual, moral and psychological wellbeing” among inmates.

Most of the budget is invested in punishment, while the rehabilitation of inmates, which should help them stay out of prison, receives about 13% of the incarceration budget.

“Presently only 3.74% of the budget is spent on social reintegration, despite past research figures showing that recidivism [reoffending] is as high as 90%. Many offenders return to prison in less than six months to a year, unable to successfully reintegrate into society,” says Venessa Padayachee, national advocacy and lobbying manager at the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro).

She believes the lack of focus on rehabilitation programmes hinders the efforts of prisoners to reintegrate release.

“Community corrections prioritises supervision and monitoring [policing] over assisting an inmate to find a job [or create job opportunities], accommodation or build family relations,” says Padayachee.

“Many formerly incarcerated people return to the same communities they came from, where crime, gangsterism and poverty are rife. They have to contend with the same challenges that got them into prison for the first time, with not much support from the department.”

Department spokesman, Singabakho Nxumalo, says the department has a responsibility to “detain all inmates in conditions that are consistent with human dignity, including the provision of adequate accommodation”.

At the same time, he says, the department “must rehabilitate those admitted to our centres and direct them towards the process of correcting their offending behaviour”.

“This process puts the offender on a rehabilitation path where correctional centres are seen as places of new beginnings, where education and skills development are the beating heart of corrections.”

To the department’s credit, its 2016-17 annual report says “77% of sentenced offenders [were] subjected [sic] to correctional programmes”, which are compulsory for an offender serving more than 24 months. In addition, 10,741 inmates participated in adult education and training and further education and training in the financial year.

Nxumalo says prison is a “last resort” and relegates the responsibility of rehabilitation to the private sphere of the family.

“The department recognises the family as the basic unit of society. The family is the primary level at which correction should take place,” he says. “The community, including schools, churches and organisations, is the secondary level at which corrections should take place.

“The state is regarded as being the overall facilitator and driver of corrections, with the department rendering the final level of corrections. Our successes in crime prevention and rehabilitation are intimately connected to how effectively we are able to address the anomalies in South African families.”

Padayachee is adamant that the government is not spending taxpayers’ money wisely. She claims that expenditure directed at the prevention of criminal activity would be more effective than spending billions of rands on punishment.

“We believe that spending more than R22bn on prisons is not okay. As a country we need to shift our priorities to address the root causes of crime. We overinvest in criminal justice at the expense of education and health, including mental health.”

Padayachee says there needs to be a mental shift in how South Africans think about prisons. “We incarcerate far too easily when there are other ways people can pay back their debt to society — especially those who are not a danger to society.”

Nicro advocates alternatives to incarceration such as behavioural change interventions and postponed sentences.

Ariane Nevin, national prison specialist at Sonke Gender Justice, also believes a more holistic criminal justice approach would be more effective.

“Money would be better spent on crime prevention, speeding up and ensuring the fairness of the criminal justice process and strengthening prison oversight mechanisms [such as the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services] to ensure the Department of Correctional Services’ accountability,” says Nevin.

She questions the efficacy of prisons as crime deterrents, or even as rehabilitation mechanisms. “The fact is that there isn’t evidence showing that prisons are an effective way of deterring crime, and our prisons are simply not sufficiently consistent with human dignity to enable effective rehabilitation programmes,” says Nevin.

“Inmates, like everyone else, have inalienable human rights, and these rights must be respected,” she says.

SA’s broken prison system produces a high recidivism rate, even though many inmates have participated in the rehabilitation programmes. But investing billions of rands in prisons every year without consideration of what happens to people before or after prison is like investing in a financial black hole.

Azarrah Abdul Karrim, a journalist with the Wits Justice Project at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Click here to read the piece as it appeared in Business Day.