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Life behind bars: An inspecting judge of prisons unlocks inmates’ stories

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Only 2.6 % of South Africa’s prison population are women — one of the lowest percentages in the world. Not bad for a population that is just more than half female. This means slightly more than 4 000 women are in jail — some with their babies.

But, in 243 “correctional centres”, we have a prison population of more than 161 000, which is the highest in Africa and number 11 in the world. More than 16 000 of these people are serving life sentences. A few decades ago, several of them would have been hanged.

Our prisons are grossly overcrowded. In a cell built for 20 inmates, I once saw more than 90 men sharing a shower, wash basin and toilet and hanging their laundry on lines across the room. Circumstances such as this are especially prevalent in cells filled with awaiting-trial inmates, who have not yet been convicted and who may have their “day in court” after months or even years. Several are eventually acquitted, because of weak or lost evidence or — believe it or not — because they are innocent. But by then many are fully fledged gang members with crime as their only future.

Prison gangs, violence, unwelcome homosexual acts and the smuggling of drugs, cellphones and food are integral to the prison life of men. The insignia of gangs and images of violence and sex are grotesquely tattooed over their mostly lean muscular bodies. Knives and other weapons are made out of the metal pipes of stacked steel beds. On special occasions tradition demands “blood on the floor” — the death or serious injury of an official. The gang command structure can guarantee life or death. A “wife” can wash your clothes and provide other comforts. What’s in it for the “wyfie” is personal safety and a bit of extra smuggled food.

Women’s prisons are also overcrowded. I was told that a cell for 25 with 37 inmates was not overcrowded. And that, in other instances, additional mattresses were put on the floor, almost doubling the number of inmates.

The cells get more crowded from September, a sympathetic warden says. The reason may be that women steal more to have clothes and other presents for their children by Christmas.

Women behind bars include a few well-known inmates. Dina Rodrigues is serving a life sentence for arranging the murder of her boyfriend’s baby. She was 26 at the time. In an unsuccessful appeal she stated that she had lived an overprotected life and was new to matters of love and life. She may get parole at the age of 51. She has obtained a BCom degree, received a prize as the best computer science student and is teaching others.

Najwa Petersen is serving 28 years for the murder of her husband, music legend Taliep Petersen. Marietjie Prinsloo was sentenced to 25 years for a pyramid scheme she and her family ran from their house, which collapsed and left pensioners and others penniless. Her daughter, who is serving 15 years, works in the prison library and says quietly: “Prison is not a joke; I do not even know where to start explaining.”

Many women are imprisoned for non-violent crime. Others are violent. In the Northern Cape, for example, drugs and alcohol cause murder and assault. Few of these cases are gang-related. Violence caused by lesbian relationships occurs, but these seem to be grounded in a genuine need for closeness, rather than domination and authority.

Many of the women look neglected, depressed and too tired or embarrassed to even lodge a complaint with the visiting inspecting judge.

Given the low number of women prisoners, questions arise. Are women less criminally inclined than men? Or simply less active? Are they less violent but more cunning than men? Or are sentencing courts more lenient with women than with men because they are seen as mothers and caretakers of children?

It is said that women often become pregnant while they are on trial in a bid to get lighter sentences, but we do not have statistical proof of this. Women inmates are tested for pregnancy on admission, but early babies do arrive. In one case an inmate complained to the nurse in the clinic of a stomach ache; an examination revealed that she was not only carrying twins but also close to their time of arrival. Thus a number of babies are born behind prison walls.

In a small national heritage site building in Oudtshoorn, next to the Ocean Basket and across the street from a company that promises to manage your finances and risks “across the board”, is a prison for women — one of few in the country where babies are kept with their mothers. In so far as seeing incarcerated women and children can be an almost uplifting experience, this is one. For one, the place smells better than other prisons.

Inmates in neat blue overalls look relaxed, some even cheerful. A 21-year-old is keen to pose for pictures. She wants to be in the newspaper. People will see her and then use the paper to role and smoke a “zol”, she says. Having served time for robbery, she was released on parole, but then broke her parole conditions to get back behind bars “because there are only drugs and nothing else out there”.

A separate little house can accommodate five mothers with babies. The place looks like an upmarket daycare centre: brightly coloured walls with pictures, jolly curtains and toys. A social worker is on hand all day. Medical care is given. Food is provided. Cynics and others may ask: Are these children not better off behind bars than fatherless with a drunk mother in the poverty and squalor of the nearby informal settlements?

Or do they need the closeness of even drunk family members and the company of snot-nosed little playmates in rags? What is the value of freedom, weighed against food and medicine?

And what does it say about our society anyway?

Johann van der Westhuizen is the inspecting judge of Correctional Services and a former justice of the Constitutional Court. This article was written with input from Lennard de Souza and Mosala Sello of the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services

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