Ofentse Morwane, Gauteng correctional services spokesperson, went into public-relations mode as we sat outside the youth wing of a prison near Pretoria: “These are normal classrooms, something that people do not know about. Every time you read about prisons it is stories about escapes and sex scandals, not this.”
The Emthonjeni Youth Centre, the juvenile section of the Baviaanspoort prison, has “normal classrooms”, a library and a computer room with new computers.
Morwane said it was a sign of the correctional services department’s drive to improve the facility’s infrastructure.
The school offers mainstream subjects between grades 10 and 12, Further Education and Training as well as Adult Basic Education and Training.
Two inmates, an 18-year-old in grade 12 and a 21-year-old doing his N4 level in business management, spoke with confidence to the Mail & Guardian of their prospects.
“I’m preparing to do well in my matric exam. Accounting is beating me, but on the rest of the subjects I’m performing,” said the 18-year-old.
The 21-year-old “started a business with a friend when I was outside, but it didn’t work because we didn’t know much about running it. I’m using education here to my advantage and learn about running a business.”
The youngsters at Emthonjeni should consider themselves fortunate in as far as access to education within juvenile prisons is concerned. The correctional services department has been accused of flagrantly failing to comply with the Correctional Services Act, which requires that all imprisoned children of compulsory school-going age, both sentenced and unsentenced, must have access to education.
While the majority of unsentenced children are excluded from accessing educational programmes, not all sentenced juveniles are getting a formal education that could help them reintegrate into the mainstream education system and society on their release.
Departmental statistics show that in February last year there were 841 children in prisons, including 305 who had not been sentenced at the time.
A yet-to-be-released survey conducted by the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative (CSPRI) last year details deep discrepancies in education offered in juvenile prisons.
Only three of 41 jails surveyed by the initiative have proper classrooms. The Johannesburg prison uses a kitchen as a classroom and at Benoni’s Modderbee jail dining halls are used for teaching.
Because there are no educational facilities in the Estcourt prison in KwaZulu-Natal, children serving long-term sentences are transferred to the Ekuseni prison in Newcastle to access education.
The correctional services department has announced plans for 11 formal schools in prisons, but Lukas Muntingh, co-founder and project coordinator of the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative told the M&G these would not be enough.
Curriculums appeared to be inconsistent, Muntingh said.
Attendance is low
The initiative found that although there are classrooms and teachers in the Rustenburg prison, attendance by children was very low.
“They reportedly do not enjoy going to class as it’s not ‘school’ subjects. They’re doing Adult Basic Education and Training classes.”
Muntingh said from the data the reform initiative had collected “it can be concluded that not all sentenced children have access to educational services as required by the Correctional Services Act”.
The correctional services department also needs to improve the pool of educators it employs. The M&G learnt that teachers in Emthonjeni are “over-burdened”.
The pupils have to do without an economics teacher since the year started.
“There are fewer educators here. The school is short-staffed. We had an economics teacher in 2010 and last year, but she didn’t return this year,” said the grade 12 pupil. “But you can study on your own. I have exam question papers from last year.”
According to the Network on Reducing Reoffending, children excluded from education are those sentenced to less than two years in prison. This is because the department “fails to properly implement” sentence plans for prisoners sentenced for less than 24 months.
This “results in many offenders missing out on educational programmes, skills development programmes and sometimes on personal development programmes”, said the network’s Tarisai Mchuchu-Ratshidi.
The failure to implement sentence plans is also to blame for the fact that “many young people sit idle in prison, being bored with little educational or recreational services and activities available,” Mchuchu-Ratshidi said.