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Female prisoners’ suffering ignored

The Jali commission has shone a brutal light on violence and sexual abuse in South African prisons. But the investigation has largely focused on the experience of male inmates, while the battles females prisoner face ”on the inside” have been downplayed in the commission’s findings.

Brenda Wardle, convicted of fraud, is an ex-inmate of the female wing of the Johannesburg Central Prison, known as ”Sun City”.

Her personal experience of jail was not laced with tales of brutal midnight gang rapes and beatings. However, she says women inmates are abused and beaten by female warders who are careful to ensure there are no witnesses, and who take advantage of the culture of silence that is an integral part of prison life.

Her own travails, she says, related to the refusal of correctional services officials to respect inmates under the Constitution and the Correctional Services Act. She says many female inmates are ignorant of their rights and reluctant to challenge the correctional services department.

She claims prisoners are often denied their rights under section 44 of the Correctional Services Act to leave prison on compassionate leave to visit ill or dying family members.

In June 2004 she obtained an urgent court application for 16 days leave to visit her dying mother in hospital, but says similar leave is denied to many other prisoners.

”As recently as two weeks ago another offender lost her daughter and was not allowed to leave the prison,” says Wardle. ”The response [from the department] is ‘We are not in the habit of releasing prisoners and letting them back into society.’”

Wardle currently works as a legal adviser to prisoners, offering services such as parole applications. She served three years of an eight-year sentence, during which she completed an LLB and an LLM degree.

She fought a lonely battle with the department to have the terms of her parole reviewed, despite her determination to rehabilitate herself. After an eight-month battle that began in late 2004, she was released in May last year and her parole ends in 2008.

Wardle maintains that inmates who protest or petition for recourse to their rights are in danger of having their papers ”dirtied”. She says if an inmate files a report requesting or querying parole, for instance, officials can blemish the prisoner’s permanent record in a bid to keep her from challenging the department.

”To them limitation of rights, means that a prisoner has no rights at all,” she said.

She added that what she had found most traumatic was being under the control of officials whose behaviour was in such marked contrast to the Constitution and to statute law.

”The majority of them go against the grain of the Correctional Services Act. They do everything to frustrate you.”

Social problems such as violence against women were also perpetuated and magnified behind bars. Many women in abusive relationships before incarceration fell into the same pattern by forming relationships with abusive fellow inmates.

The culture of silence also hindered remedial action and violent behaviour was ignored or shrugged off by other inmates and authorities as a ”lover’s spat”.

Wardle said that being separated from their children, often for life, was a particularly traumatic experience for many women, as it is something ”our children never forgive us for”.

Lisa Vetten, of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women, said there is concern over the lack of psycho-social support for women inmates, in particular those who are abused by their partners in prison and who have children outside prison.

”Research suggests that this gets overlooked, as it attracts less attention than in male prisons.”

A report released by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, co-authored by Vetten, points to the difficulties women inmates have in gaining access to their children. It says visiting times are too short and circumstances too child-unfriendly to support mother-child relationships.

 

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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