Jail can make offenders more violent

Social worker Annette Vergeer says prison would 'break' Oscar Pistorius and 'take his future away'. (Antoine de Ras, AFP)

Social worker Annette Vergeer says prison would 'break' Oscar Pistorius and 'take his future away'. (Antoine de Ras, AFP)


Should Oscar Pistorius be incarcerated, social worker Annette Vergeer told the high court in Pretoria this week, it would only have a negative impact on him “and, in fact, place him in danger”.

“It will not assist him but will break him as a person. It will take his future away and a broken person will be reintroduced into society,” Vergeer said.

That may or may not be true of Pistorius; whether imprisonment produces a rehabilitated individual seems to depend more on the background and character of the person, and chance, than any other factor.

Statistically, however, the rate of recidivism in South Africa implies that Pistorius would not be broken by prison so much as transformed into an armed robber or car hijacker, a progression not unusual in the justice system.

One way or the other, though, Vergeer was right about the average if not the individual: imprisonment rarely serves society.

“Something like 99% of sentenced people will be released from prison sooner or later,” says Lukas Muntingh, of the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative. “What happens to them on the inside will to a large extent determine what they will do on release.”

Escalating violence
What happens on the inside, all too often, is violence and trauma of various kinds. The rates are highly contested (with significant under-reporting by inmates, especially of assault by prison officials) but the result is not. By some estimates a quarter of inmates will reoffend within five years of release, and half or more during their lifetime. All too often the level of violence in their crimes escalates over time.

“They come out angry and traumatised, so we shouldn’t be too surprised,” Muntingh says.

The problem and the reasons behind it are so well understood that criminologists simply take them as read. The solution too is simple in its fundamentals. To reduce recidivism, make prisons less crowded and safer – and put as few people as possible in them. To reduce crime itself, hire social workers rather than police.

“We’ve known since the 1960s that we need more social workers in South Africa,” says Gareth Newman of the Institute for Security Studies. “We know that an increase in social workers decreases crime and that when they engage with high-risk families there are other spin-offs [such as] lower rates of alcohol abuse and fewer teen pregnancies. But in crime we think about the now, we want a short-term response.”

It is one of the contradictions in criminal justice: while there is evidence that more social workers will reduce crime and more police on the streets will, in the medium to long run, have no positive impact on crime, societies facing high rates of crime hire more police. Another contradiction is between law and policy, and even the Constitution, and the demands of society.

“We have, from various groups but definitely from government, support for notions of restorative justice and forgiving and reparations,” says Muntingh. “That is one end of the spectrum. On the other end there is this search for vengeance and extremely harsh punishments.”

‘A taste of their own medicine’
Officially, South African prisons do not serve out the retribution society can, in law, rightfully demand – not beyond depriving inmates of their liberty. But there are many examples of South Africans revelling in the thought that violent offenders will “get a taste of their own medicine” behind bars, or will have to “grease up” in anticipation of rape.

There are many South Africans who describe prison as too comfortable, with three meals a day, free medical care and entertainment (although that sentiment is limited to people who have not seen the inside of a prison).

Bloodlust runs deep, as long as the criminal is part of a faceless mass responsible for the fear brought about by crime. The glee at the thought of violence being done to the violent does not change when it is pointed out that such violence begets violence against others again.

“It can change so quickly,” says Muntingh. “The one day you have a story about a serial rapist and people say, ‘I hope he rots in hell and never sees the light of day again.’ The next day there is a photo showing 40 people squeezed into a cell meant for 10 and people say, ‘That’s not okay.’”

Studies on the death penalty most clearly show how attitudes change. Ask South Africans whether the death penalty should be reimposed for murder, and a substantial majority will say yes. Ask whether it should be imposed for a friend or family member of the respondent, and the rate approaches zero.

Add the background for an unknown murderer, one that includes abuse by parents from a young age and a subsequent drug addiction, and the rate hovers towards the lower end. People, it seems, don’t want people killed or imprisoned, but criminals in general “have it coming”.

Levels of sympathy
Typically, sympathy is most easily extended to children or young offenders and the disabled, especially those with mental disability. This week the fact that Oscar Pistorius is very much a known entity seemed to war with his triumph over disability to split South Africans between those who wanted him to do hard time and those who thought correctional supervision would be an adequate sentence.

The contrast was best shown by the sometimes vicious cross-examination of social worker Vergeer, the face of the call for mercy and calculation over emotion, and prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who called for vengeance like an Old Testament God.

“This accused is not a victim of what happened,” Nel hurled at Vergeer.

“That is not disputed, but he does not become a stone,” Vergeer countered.

Correctional supervision, which comes down to house arrest, neither fits all crimes and criminals, nor does it necessarily serve as a deterrent to others. Such factors often see judges impose direct imprisonment and criminologists and sociologists do not dispute the basis for such sentences.

What does frustrate them, though, is when the public mindlessly rejects alternatives as insufficient in what seems awfully like a choice of blood over societal good.

“When you wish for harsh treatment, or you turn a blind eye to it, you are just shooting yourself in the foot,” says Muntingh.

Disability: Help or hindrance?

South African prisons average an intake of a little over 100 disabled inmates every year, and the department of correctional services insists it is able to accommodate anyone, short of mental disability – the one class of adults that should never end up in a prison in the first place.

Those serving their terms live under better conditions than those awaiting trial. Paraplegics awaiting trial have reported being denied the use of wheelchairs, amputees have said they were limited in their use of prostheses, and ablution facilities are generally decried as inadequate for those with limited mobility.

Sentenced prisoners, however, have more leeway. Those with severe disabilities have been known to be confined in hospital wings of prisons for their entire stay, and some have been granted the use of a single cell after applying for one.

A prison official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says disability is sometimes considered a lesser form of vulnerability than a history in the criminal justice system.

“If we have a guy without an arm and a former magistrate, we have to choose. We know which one is not going to be safe.”

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet


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