According to law, children should be jailed only as a last resort, but this has never been clearly communicated to magistrates by Correctional Services. Barry Streek reports
Two boys, aged 12 and 13, arrested for alleged housebreaking, have been removed from Pollsmoor prison.
The acting head of the prison, Eric Morton, initially refused to admit them because of their age. Morton was threatened with contempt of court by a magistrate if he did not jail the two boys, named in Parliament by Minister of Correctional Services Ben Skosana.
Skosana told the Mail & Guardian Morton had been “right” to refuse to admit the two boys to the prison because this might have contravened the Correctional Services Act as well as the Constitution.
He said he had initiated discussions with other government departments and provincial governments to keep young people out of jail.
“No one wants children in prison. Children do not belong in prison. I think we are actually violating some of the international conventions by sending children to prison,” Skosana said.
The inspecting judge of prisons, Judge Hannes Fagan, had told him during a visit to a Bloemfontein prison he had found a 14-year-old boy, who had been detained without trial for four months for stealing two mangoes.
Judge Fagan then asked the boy what he was going to do. “The boy said he was going to plead guilty. If this had happened within 24 hours of the arrest, the boy might well have been somewhere else,” Skosana said.
Skosana said some progress had been made about the detention of children in prisons and some people had been made aware of the issue “but we have not made a lot of progress”.
In terms of the law the jailing of children should be the last resort and it made provision for other options, such as releasing them into the custody of their parents or putting them in places of safety.
However, the prison authorities had no option but to jail children when they were given an order to do so by a magistrate.
Skosana said the two teenagers were admitted to Pollsmoor prison on May 17 this year but Morton had refused to admit them because of their age and because of the provisions of Section 29 (8) of the Correctional Services Act.
However, the magistrate then threatened him with contempt of court and he was forced to admit them.
Skosana said after the matter was taken up with the Department of Justice the two boys were transferred to the Lindelani Place of Safety near Stellenbosch.
Judge Fagan was speaking to judges in the high court in an attempt to the limit the number of children in prisons.
“Judge Fagan has been very, very helpful. He has taken the bull by the horns,” Skosana said.
Skosana added that he would “like to get to a situation where we don’t have children in jail. I would love that. I would be happy, extremely happy, if we got to a situation where we are not incarcerating children. Because what are we proving by doing so?”
Children were vulnerable and his department did not have adequate facilities for them. Once in jail, children found themselves crossing paths with criminals, including hardened criminals.
“People who saw that BBC documentary [on Pollsmoor Prison] asked what was happening to the children in prisons when this man says we make them wives and we make them girlfriends. If you don’t start with the youth as a priority, you turn teenagers into criminals.
“Once they leave prison you say they should be rehabilitated but I don’t see how a child of 12 or 13 can be rehabilitated if he spends two or three years in there he is not rehabilitated. When he is there at 16 and is released only at the age of 20 he is going to form some ideas, and the only ideas he would think are good are the ones he learned in prison. Then you have a criminal.”
In the case of the two boys who were held at Pollsmoor, he thought there had been a communication problem with the magistrate but “it has also been caused by the fact that there has never been a clear communication between the courts and ourselves. It is only now developing.”
His officials should, however, begin reminding magistrates of the provisions of the law by telling them they could not just detain children without considering other options.
“That is why I think the head of the prison was right to remind them to look at the Act and its provisions.
“They were arrested for housebreaking! You would have thought they had murdered.”
He also disclosed that South Africa has a high rate of recidivism: “Over 65% go out and come back. Some of them find prison a place to be in, and a place also to plan some sophisticated crimes. There is a cycle of reoffending.”
If awaiting-trial prisoners were included, more than 65% of people in prisons were there for the second or third time.
Skosana said there were 1 292 juveniles in prisons throughout the country on February 28 this year.