Let us pause for a moment and consider what we expect from prison. We want perpetrators of crimes to be caught and effectively punished. We also want something to be done with them so that when they re-enter society, they are less likely to commit similar offences and victimise other people.
What role does prison play in this? Do we regard prison just as a punishment? Or is prison supposed to be rehabilitative, as well as punitive? Do we expect people coming out of prison to behave differently from how they behaved before they were in prison? Why would we expect people who have spent years in an overcrowded, under-resourced environment to behave like solid upstanding citizens when they are released? Is this expectation even rational?
What do we expect people to do in prison while they wait out their sentence? Do we expect them to work and earn their keep? How do we expect them to work when most of them have no skills or work experience? Do we expect them to study and earn qualifications that they can use when they are released? How can we expect people who rarely have finished school, many of which can barely hold a pen correctly, let alone read and write, to acquire qualifications? And when the rare few actually do earn a qualification in prison, what do we expect them to do with it when no one will hire them because they have a criminal record?
Take the example of David. David was convicted for armed robbery, a very serious offence. He was sentenced to prison and was paroled after serving 12 years. During his time in prison, he earned a BA degree in psychology and went on to complete an Honours degree. He wishes to pursue his studies so that he can find work in his chosen field. He cannot do this because he has a criminal record. So we must ask ourselves the question – what was the point of David spending all those years studying psychology if, upon release, he cannot study further or practice? Every time he applies for anything, his record comes up and he is turned away.
No one is suggesting that the offence he committed is not serious. However, he served 12 years and put those years to good use. He wants to lead a different life. But he cannot because society has placed innumerable barriers in his way. On the one hand we say to David, turn your life around and stay away from crime. At the same time, we also say to him, forget about having dreams of a different future because you have a record that will stay with you for life. In effect, we are inflicting punishment on people that goes way beyond the sentence. We are permanently blighting their lives, while expecting them to turn over a new leaf.
Are we not seriously contradicting ourselves?
If we want to do something about the crime rate in South Africa, we should ask ourselves what prospects and opportunities do offenders have to lead different lives? The answer is...very poor prospects and hardly any opportunities.
Let us look at another example. Harker is a young man who was convicted for possession of mandrax and dagga seven years ago. He has since married and become a father. However, he cannot find work because he has a record. In his own words “So for me because of my beliefs I try to stay positive, but still I would like some help from you guys as well by fighting this thing on my name. We sitting with young people with a record like me, they try to change but our system is not allowing them to. Some of them go back to doing "darkness" because of this. We need help is hard out there. Try to help.”
Take Max, who was convicted for possession of dagga: “This has affected my career and growth ever since. It is very hard for me to move forward in life because I am not even called in for an interview when applying for jobs (work in the financial industry) please assist me. I would love to enrol in the programme so I can further my career as a financial advisor. I have already been rejected by Sanlam and other financial institutes because of this.”
When I raised this issue with a senior member of the judiciary, he said that if people do not want the punishment, they should not do the crime.
Fair enough, but then we must be clear that we do not expect offenders to change their lives. We must be honest and state that we expect them to go on committing crimes and victimising other people. We must stop this half-hearted business of mouthing words like “social reintegration” and “restorative justice” and be honest about the fact that, as a society, we do not believe people can change and we offer no way out of a life of crime for people who have gone down that road. Because this is the message we are sending anyway, although we pretend otherwise.
It is not just the crime statistics that people should be vocal about. It is also the half-hearted and contradictory way in which our society attempts to reintegrate offenders who wish to lead different lives. It is not just the crime stats that need changing in South Africa. We really need to rethink punishment and rehabilitation.
Non-Custodial Sentencing Project manager
26 September 2013
Communication & marketing Manager
National Institute for Crime prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders
Tel: 021 462 0017
Fax: +27(0)21 462 2447
Email: Jacques@nicro.co.za Website: www.nicro.co.za Twitter: @NICRO_ Facebook page: NICRO