Treat prisoners with respect if aim is to rehabilitate – expert

Lee-Anne Butler

SOUTH Africa needs to look at performing a complete overhaul of its prison system as it has failed at rehabilitating prisoners, says a renowned former prison psychologist.

Dr Sandy Hoffman, a counselling psychologist who has worked at St Albans, North End and Cape Town’s Pollsmoor prisons, said many prisoners were still being treated inhumanely, as a form of punishment for the crimes they have committed.

“You need to look at whether you want safety eventually or revenge. If you want revenge, then carry on with the way you are treating [prisoners], but if you want safety you need to treat them with respect.

“These people come from a background where they were raised with no respect. People are not born evil, they learn it along the way,” she said.

Hoffman, who is originally from Port Elizabeth but now practises privately in Cape Town, was a member of a panel discussion on the torture of prisoners and detainees, held at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) last night.

The discussion followed the viewing of a documentary, Doctors on the Dark Side, which exposes the role physicians and psychologists play in detainee torture.

Hoffman said the Correctional Services Department needed to go back to the drawing board if its aim was to rehabilitate prisoners in such a way that they could rejoin society.

She said during her research into South African prisons she found that various forms of torture, including solitary confinement for youths, created fundamental obstacles to providing meaningful therapy for rehabilitation.

“As a prison psychologist we are taught to use a gun before we go in, but I do not intend to shoot my client, so why do I need a gun? You cannot reduce crime if you do not treat those you are wanting to rehabilitate with respect,” she said.

Human rights activist and senior lecturer, Dr Janet Cherry said South Africa’s history of torturing prisoners was evident during apartheid.

“It is easy to think that all this torture happened in the past but this is still happening in our prisons today. Many people still die in police custody today,” she said.

Cherry said the entire prison system needed to be more closely monitored and suggested that the old Sanlam building in Strand Street where Steve Biko was detained shortly before his death be used as a site to educate and inform people about prisoners’ rights and other historical facts, as was once mooted.

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