Prisons just hone criminals' skills

Saturday, 8 March 1997

WARNING: This column describes prison conditions in a graphic manner that is likely to offend many people ...

OUR symbol of democracy and human rights, the National Party, this week stood up for the rights of prisoners.

Commissioner of Correctional Services Khulekani Sitole had earlier suggested that hardened criminals should be imprisoned in disused mine shafts.

Public sentiment against crime is high, so when Sitole said hardened criminals "are animals" that "must never see sunlight again", maybe he expected the nation to rally around him in support.

It was not to be so. Ever the champions of justice, the Nats - who also support castration and the death penalty - said the suggestion was "barbaric and totally unacceptable."

Strange. I remember Indres Naidoo's Island in Chains where he described his idyllic stint at Robben Island.

The image that most sticks in my mind is that of Naidoo's description of the morning dance that prisoners were required to perform in front of the warders.

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Stripped naked, they had to fling themselves into the air spreading their legs and clapping their hands to ensure that they were not concealing goods smuggled from the outside.

Stop to consider that our president was among those subjected to this humiliation. That he came out preaching peace and love is truly a miracle.

But back to Sitole. The man, very simply, needs to be fired. In the new South Africa, a man who is not cognisant of the Bill of Rights should not have that job.

What we need are not barbaric prisons, but effective prisons. Prisons in this country, like those in most parts of the world, produce a high degree of recidivism: the tendency to relapse into criminal behaviour upon release.

Instead of being deprived of the opportunity to inflict harm upon society, criminals are thrust into an environment that forces them to hone their skills particularly in rape, murder, and other forms of violence.

Law of the jungle conditions, where only the fittest survive, almost guarantee that upon their release they will commit worse crimes.

Consider the first-offence teenager who is tossed into our prisons today.

Never mind that minor offenders and long term prisoners are supposed to be separated. A few rand slipped to a warder ensures a blind eye will be turned towards an ambush in the showers.

Beaten within an inch of his life and gang-raped, he is then released to take his place as a "rehabilitated" member of society? Let's get real!

I remember a recent TV interview with an American long termer where he described the "initiation" of new prisoners. "Well, the first thing I make him do is toss my salad."

What's that?

"Tossing your salad means having yo' asshole eaten out with jelly or syrup. I prefer syrup."

Why not just oral sex, he was asked.

"Because he can always pretend it's something else in his mouth, but if he's eating ass, he knows it's ass."

Read between the lines of the recent interview with a man imprisoned while a teenager published in Sunday Life. Understand the implications of his being forced to become the "girlfriend" of the prison gang leader.

He stands the risk of developing Aids. When he emerges, he could also pass the virus on to others.

Driving prisoners underground is not an answer. If they are ever to be released into society again, they need to be humanely rehabilitated.

If not, ship them to Prince Edward island.