/ 25 March 2023

Is the idea of rehabilitation redundant in South Africa?

Late on Sunday 5 March, four prisoners escaped from the central prison in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, killing two soldiers in the process.

Dedicated to Amanda, since she inspired me to rethink the issue of crime and especially cyber crime critically.

When I was awarded my PhD in December 2018, I was firmly under the belief that rehabilitation was not only feasible in the South African corrections landscape, but that stigma against ex-offenders was the major stumbling block prohibiting their sustainable reintegration and eventual possible rehabilitation.

Since then, more recent data has convinced me that the idea of any meaningful rehabilitation in South Africa is redundant, and that clinging to this outdated way of thinking is an obstacle to making any further progress, assuming that progress is still possible. By rehabilitation, of course, we mean desistance from committing further crime. 

Terrifying as the idea might be that rehabilitation could be redundant, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s notion of the “radical thrownness” of our historicity implies that we have to face this fact to find realistic solutions, assuming that there are any.

For years, criminologists were aware that rehabilitation in this country had been severely compromised. Reasons include the existence of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) and the harsh stigmatising shaming culture in South Africa. The PIC is the idea that ex-offenders could be recycled for profit — beautifully exemplified by the Bosasa/DCS tender-and-service-provider scandal — rather than sustainably reintegrated into the community to forestall further criminal behaviour. Accordingly, it has been suggested that

This racket [the presence in this country of the PIC] significantly skews the picture of crime patterns and statistics from the perspective of so-called “objective” crime, in that it has been demonstrated that the confluence of a number of divergent forces other than the commission of crime per se (such as the presence of a PIC) arguably propels people into incarceration. 

Add to this the notion that South Africa has one of the harshest prison stigmatising shaming cultures (perhaps on a par with that of the US) in the world, and we have the makings of a perfect storm regarding an avalanche of crime. While all cultures use shame to manage crime, stigma, unlike reintegrative shaming, drives ex-offenders away from the idea of reintegration into the arms of accepting criminal subcultures. John Braithwaite, the well-known Australian comparative criminologist, describes the stigmatising shaming model in his book Crime, Shame and Reintegration (1989) as being “criminogenic and counter-productive.” Stigma, argues Braithwaite, is “cold and punitive” while reintegrative shaming is “warm but firm.” 

In her very readable book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012), Michelle Alexander explores the idea of stigma as embedded in incarceration as our dominant sentencing regime (which it need not be).

The disturbing phenomenon of people cycling in and out of prison, trapped by their second-class status, has been described by Loic Wacquant as a “closed circuit of perpetual marginality.” Hundreds of thousands of people are released from prison every year, only to find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy. Most ultimately return to prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Others are released again, only to find themselves in precisely the same circumstances they occupied before, unable to cope with the stigma of the prison label and their permanent pariah status.

Stigma and the PIC, as Alexander’s quote demonstrates, work hand- in-hand to crush the notion of rehabilitation. These features which obscure the debate on meaningful rehabilitation in South Africa, represent a phenomenon which the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a contemporary of Heidegger’s, calls, albeit in another context, “systematically distorted communication.” 

Despite these two tremendous hurdles to the achievement of the ideal of rehabilitation — the PIC and the stigmatising shaming culture — most mainstream criminologists in South Africa still subscribe to the notion of achievable or sustainable rehabilitation, if only in principle. 

I will outline the three instances which led to my conversion from the belief that rehabilitation is feasible to my new line of thinking that it is redundant, before briefly sketching the philosophical implications of this paradigm shift — since that is what it is. 

Firstly, since South Africa is anything but a post-conflict society, it is worth noting the value of a human needs-approach within the context of a conflict management perspective. John Burton, certainly one of the giants in the field of conflict resolution or management, contends that the use of force, which is what stigma essentially is, is not an effective  source of control. He suggests that  [d]eterrence does not deter sane behaviours, and the power political frame was unrealistic because no account was taken of relevant human factors: here are ontological, inherent human needs that cannot be suppressed, (needs of identity and recognition that are the bases of relatedness), which make deterrence sometimes irrelevant at all societal levels.  

By marginalising ex-offenders economically and socially, as a stigmatising shaming culture does, they are denied basic human needs satisfaction, which becomes a major source of contention/resentment, and is ultimately bound to lead to conflict (read: re-offending or recidivism).

Secondly, recidivism or re-offending is clearly a powerful one in South African correctional institutions. Although no accurate figures appear to be available, indications are that as many as nine out of every 10 ex-offenders return to a life of crime. With a recidivism rate of as high as 90%, South Africa certainly has one of the highest re-offending rates in the world. Stigma, the PIC and the dismissal of basic human needs satisfaction have contributed to this lamentable state of affairs.

Finally, Pat Carlen, former editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Criminology, argues that in a society where ex-offenders have nothing to rehabilitate to, the idea of rehabilitation is nothing if not “penal imaginary”. A state of affairs compounded, undoubtedly, by stigma, marginalisation, the PIC and unmet human needs satisfaction. 

This is so because “[t]he majority of criminal prisoners worldwide have, prior to their imprisonment, usually been so economically and/or socially disadvantaged that they have nothing to which they can be advantageously rehabilitated. They are returned to their place in society, but from that disadvantaged place they are repeatedly returned to prison.” 

Without the political incentive for fundamental economic change, a state of affairs exacerbated, for example, by increasing and deepening levels of inequality, the fortunes and possibilities for rehabilitation in South Africa will not and cannot change. 

Indeed, as Burton suggests: “The only option, in politically realistic terms, was to resolve the social and behavioural problems that led to specific conflicts, and not try merely to suppress them or to settle them by coercion.”

What, then, would be the implications of the redundancy of the ideal of rehabilitation in South Africa, a country already awash with crime and re-offending? In my view, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. 

According to Thomas Kuhn, arguably the 20th century’s most influential philosopher of science, a paradigm shift occurs when the central idea around which a paradigm is arranged — the issue of rehabilitation, for the sake of illustration — runs up against many anomalies (the PIC, stigma, the infeasibility of rehabilitation on the whole, etc.) until the paradigm becomes untenable. At this point, it is rejected and replaced by another, certainly incomprehensible new paradigm. 

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Kuhn develops the argument that paradigms often overlap and therefore scholars attached to the former central idea (rehabilitation) work on a notion incomprehensible to the new thinking. 

To my mind, this new paradigm in criminology is almost certainly a reflective, philosophical dimension embracing a critical edge, as opposed to the empirically-obsessed activities of mainstream criminologists in their attempts to add to and/or aid government-aligned agendas insisting on rehabilitative programming. 

Criminologists critical of so-called “correctional” criminology have called for criminology to reassess its values as well as their commitment to fair play and justice. 

Critical criminology comprises many disciplines that scrutinise a government’s collusion with big business, such as green criminology (which criticises government’s complicity in environmental crimes and global warming), peacemaking criminology (searching for peaceful means through which to resolve conflict), abolitionist criminology, feminist criminology (which examines the contradictions that underlie crime control under conditions of patriarchal oppressions), and critical race criminology. 

Likewise, Pat Carlen argues that “a critical criminology must try not only to think the unthinkable about crime, but also to speak the unspeakable about the conditions in which, and by which, it is known”.

Indeed, in the perceptive words of Eugene McLaughlin, professor of criminology based at the School of Policy and Global Affairs in the University of London, mainstream criminologists tend to uncritically legitimise the state’s unjustified and unlawful “criminalisation and marginalisation practices”. One such marginalisation practice is the recycling of ex-offenders for profit (and/or other nefarious purpose[s]) rather than public safety.

If “nothing works” in terms of sustainable rehabilitation and reintegration, as indeed the literature on rehabilitation efforts shows evidence of despair, we should ask ourselves why this is so and draw the obvious conclusions. Nothing works because criminologists are asking the wrong questions underpinned by the misguided assumptions advanced by (an) agenda(s) with vested interests — the PIC being a case in point. 

A new, philosophically guided, critically minded paradigm is sorely needed and, in my estimation, already upon us. Even if the rehabilitation paradigm is redundant, fresh, reflective and critical thinking could open valuable, new paths for addressing the problem, as Heidegger would be the first to admit.

Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated with North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.