Revolving door of crime and jail

South Africa’s criminal reoffending rate is high because rehabilitation and reintegration programmes are largely absent from the justice system, according to the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro).

The institute’s Betzi Pierce says that although there are no accurate statistics on recidivism or the habitual relapse into crime, it could be as high as 87%.

But the department of correctional services says it has several initiatives to help rehabilitate offenders. It employs 584 social workers — or one per 240 offenders. It also runs psycho-social programmes to ready offenders to go out into society. And department regulations make it compulsory for offenders up to the age of 25 to attend school until they at least pass grade 9. Alternatively, they should attain adult education and training level 4, according to Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo.

Regarding former inmates continuing to committing crimes, he said the majority of offenders released on parole don’t re-offend within their first year of release. It is not clear what the statistics are for reoffending after their first year of release.

In response to high levels of crime and gender-based violence, politicians have been quick to announce possible harsher sentences and punishments, as well as removing the possibility of bail for certain offenders.


But, with correctional facilities already at capacity, and with few plans by the government to build new prisons, nongovernmental organisations warn this could make violent crime in South Africa worse. They too blame this on there being no proper rehabilitation and reintegration programmes available in prisons to reintroduce offenders into society once they’ve served their time.

“People, in general, leave prison in worse conditions than before,” says Pierce, who is Nicro’s operations director. “There is joining and rejoining prison gangs to survive prison life. And there is constant exposure to more dangerous criminals while in prison. It makes it so much more challenging for them to change their behaviour.”

Pierce acknowledges society’s general frustration when it comes to crime and criminal activity. But she questions the strategies used, with few long term interventions, to prevent people from committing a crime in the first place.

“There are people who don’t belong in prison. There are people who don’t have a serious risk profile … We are exposing them to hardened criminals,” she said. “And they are going to come out there and would have learnt at the best university how to do crime.”

This situation is exacerbated when people leave prison with a criminal record and find opportunities for work scarce.

“Offenders have been ill-prepared and ill-equipped to lead a constructive life in society,” Pierce says. “And they are even more disadvantaged because of the stigmatisation [of being an offender], leading to that revolving door effect.

“When we asked our clients why they commit their crimes so soon after their release, they say it is about boredom, hunger, homelessness, poverty, unemployment. Many have to commit a crime to feed their families.

And then “there is the phenomena of people who intentionally commit crime to go back into prison because they simply can’t survive outside”, says Pierce.

A 2018 research report by the Western Cape Social Development Department found that diversion programmes — instead of time behind bars, especially for young offenders — could prevent recidivism. Instead of incarceration, offenders are obliged to attend workshops, undergo psycho-social counselling and do community work.

Pierce agrees, but says sometimes even having the money to travel to workshops and rehabilitation programmes is a problem. She’s of the opinion that a once-off offender rehabilitation grant should be awarded to released offenders to help get them on their feet.

“When offenders are released, at first their families are happy to have them, and then later they become a strain because they become an extra mouth to feed,” says Pierce.

“And if they struggle to find employment most ex-offenders will try to go into entrepreneurship so that they don’t have to go through the criminal record test process.”

But parliamentarians rejected the prisoner resettlement grant proposal when it was presented in 2017.

Craig Nuttley is one ex-offender who has had to fend for himself and find his feet. He knows the effects of prison life on one’s prospects for the future. For most of his life, he’s either been on the run from authorities, living in reformatories or jail after being convicted of murder in the early 1990s. He’s been out of prison for the past 13 years.

He says he is a changed person, but he still faces the stigma of being an ex-offender. “I was unemployable. I have a standard five. My mom says I passed standard seven but I can’t remember that. It was a tough life.”

Nuttley, wasn’t able to find work because of his criminal record. “When I came out, with a bad criminal record like mine, I decided I needed to find something to do. But it has been a difficult 13 years. I’ve been homeless twice, I’m about to be homeless for the third time … I have to negotiate through a lot of hate. Not only from society, it often comes from my own family.”

He says the sooner people realise criminals are not monsters, but their own friends and family, the better

Nuttley got a break to build business directory websites to make ends meet. “I had a knack for writing, and a friend gave me a chance to start writing for websites.”

Nuttley says he is one of the lucky few who haven’t been pulled back into a life of crime.

He believes many young men who grow up in neighbourhoods with high incidents of gang activity and end up in prison are drawn to the protection and brotherhood of the numbers gangs inside the jails.

“Prisons systems in the Western Cape are run by gangsters, so how does a young guy change his life when he is only getting more rank, more powerful in the numbers gangs?

“Even if a guy goes in and he is not a gangster, the chances are 90% that when he comes out he will be a gangster.”

He says there is no rehabilitation in the prison system. “You only come right because of wanting to change or you never want to be there [in prison] again,” he says.

Nuttley believes criminals are not born, but are the products of their own society.

“Circumstance will always be the thing that puts people into prison. It doesn’t matter where you born. If you are not given the opportunity to talk about your circumstance, and what led you down this path, people will never be able to identify the cause of your crimes and they will just label you a criminal.”

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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