Alternative to jails needed

Stereotype is a form of unconscious bias. The famous nineteenth century German philosopher Hegel reminds us that with stereotype one aspect of a person’s personality is magnified beyond justifiable limits to the exclusion of all other aspects of that person’s being.

Not so with Deputy Justice and Correctional Services Minister Thabang Makwetla and Eastern Cape commissioner Nathi Breakfast in their recent visit to the St Albans prison complex. It is a cause for celebration precisely because of their putting in place a creative and sensible problem-solving policy modelled on evidence that has been shown to be correct.

Offenders and ex-offenders were invited to raise their concerns and these will be taken into account in addressing long-overdue solutions to problems of violence and other issues plaguing prisons.

Roy King, professor of prison studies at London University, remarked that “it is commonplace in the literature that prisoners have a profound sense of justice and fair play”. Giving offenders and ex-offenders a voice in their own destiny and management is an acknowledgement of the value of evidence-based policy over that of vested interests.

Consider the argument that if crime is one reason among many for people being imprisoned, then the deputy minister’s visit to St Albans and his innovative approach to resolving the ongoing problems and violence at St Albans, is a fine opportunity to reflect on this incongruity.

Prison abolition activists have raised concerns since the 1960s over what they termed the incongruous, yet continuous existence of the prison-industrial-complex (a phenomenon steeped in corruption) in the context of the rehabilitation ideal.

Angela Davis, who ran as the presidential candidate of the Communist Party of the US and a famous prison abolitionist, once wrote that “imprisonment is the punitive solution to a whole range of social problems that are not being addressed by those social institutions that might help people lead better, more satisfying lives . . . The prison becomes a way of sequestrating people in the false hope of sequestrating the underlying social problems they represent.”

This is especially true in corruption-ridden societies such as South Africa, where a powerful and wealthy elite use the phenomenon of crime to divert attention away from their own bad behaviour and the resultant failings of government.

The existence of the prison on our social and economic landscape should accordingly not be taken for granted. As Davis points out, the prison serves a whole range of functions in our society that includes a perceived solution to many social problems.

This does not mean that people in prison did not commit acts that are popularly known as “crimes”.

By analogy, the industrial emission of greenhouse gasses, which has almost certainly led to irreversible climate change, has enriched a few while everybody else has to pay the price. Yet this is not a “crime” on the statute book of any municipal jurisdiction.

As the Zupta phenomenon has demonstrated, advanced capitalism entails the collusion of the state with business, resulting in the siphoning off of billions meant to benefit the public at large.

Punishment for those behaviours labelled “crime” is only one of many possible motivations for the “reinvented” prison. Spending money on incarcerating people as an alternative to spending money on more pressing social issues (housing, education, alleviating poverty) is a way to ensure that role players with a vested interest in the prison-industrial-complex are not disappointed.

Consider the billions BOSASA has invested in catering for South African prisons and the profits which the construction industry has made from building new prisons. The construction of the C-max Ebongweni prison in Kokstad reputedly cost more than half a billion rands and only houses a handful of offenders.

Support for imprisonment is fuelled by politicians wanting to appear tough on crime for political gain and is what the UK criminologist David Garland calls “populist penativism”. The high and unsustainable levels of corruption in South Africa, at the highest echelons of government no less, has significantly compromised the moral fibre of our society and has led to unprecedented heights of inequality and poverty.

The emphasis on individual responsibility as a precursor for imprisonment is essential in a society that denies its own responsibility for stimulating crime and its lack of accountability to the marginalised communities created by structural oppression (such as poverty and unemployment). This is the rationale – however misguided – for the imprisonment binge in the US, but South Africa, too, has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world.

The deputy minister and regional commissioner are both to be congratulated on their approach of inclusivity in addressing concerns at St Albans. Their creative problem-solving thinking will ensure that the valuable voices and concerns of offenders and ex-offenders are not lost or ignored.

If ordinary people, such as the readers of this broadsheet, can be encouraged to think about the prison-industrial-complex in new ways, such as those outlined here, we are making progress towards a less punitive, more caring, society. Sensible evidence-based policy should always be preferable over that of corruption-fuelled vested interests.

  • Casper Lötter is a PhD candidate in social philosophy at the University of the Free State.

Leave a Reply