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Arrested Development

Arrested Development

by Unathi Kondile / Illustration by Sasan / 15.06.2012

It’s a Saturday. I just finished playing a round of pool or snooker – we call it either or in the townships. Really doesn’t matter as long as you’re the last one to sink the black. No pun intended. Then you’re the winner. The venue is Msobomvu, in Butterworth. Standing outside are lighties in their late teens, smoking whilst surrounding their ‘ngqundu’ or quart of beer.

One of these boys recognizes me with a “Salut! TaMaUni! Kunjani eKapa?” Unqabile!” I tell him Cape Town is fine, ask him what he’s been up to – to which he nonchalantly tells me he’s been in and out of prison for various petty crimes, but he’s alright. He’s trying to get his life in order, but jobs are tough and he’d really like to stop crime.

Later that day questions crossed my mind. This thing called prison, jail, emjiva or whatever we call it – is it still relevant in post-apartheid South Africa? I mean yes, worldwide, this is where we courier our social deviants to, but I couldn’t help thinking there is something very problematic about the institution of prison.

I would go as far as saying prisons are outdated and glorified centres for the hardening of criminals.

For example: A 16 year-old boy is convicted of, let’s say theft, and sent to prison for six months to “teach him a lesson”. In all probability that boy will come out of that jail cell much worse then he was. He may come out a murderer. It’s said that we have rehabilitation programmes in our prisons. How does one even begin to rehabilitate anything in hell? Futile objectives these.

Something else is at play. Prisons have literally become schools – schools where a new language is inculcated into one (Advanced Tsotsitaal?), schools which boasts a curriculum around prison history that somehow glorifies where they find themselves. It’s booming.

Visit any township in this country and it will become glaringly clear that those who have been to prison earn an unspoken type of respect amongst their peers. They bully societies with their prison credentials and alienate others with their newfound prison languages. As twisted as this might sound being an ex-convict is fashionable in some parts of this country. Afterall most of our ruling politicians themselves are ex-convicts, tat’ uRholihlala Mandela, included. Do we not perhaps think that prison, boasting such alumni, becomes bearable and respectable, at some point?

If it’s a bearable place to find yourself, then it becomes evident that the reason people commit crime is because they can and there are no measurable repercussions, especially if you’re already familiar with prison life.

Prison has become bearable. The idea of isolating those who misbehave is outdated. We, as a society, are no longer thinking of new ways to rehabilitate criminals and reintegrate them. Instead we isolate them, give them rooms share lessons, experience and transmit their hatred and traumas amongst one another.

Perhaps it’s time we seriously re-thought the model of putting criminals in cages, together. Perhaps prison as an institution is long outdated. Our history also necessitates that we ponder how black people, in particular, view prison. Is it a threat or is it some form of heroic captivity following on the heels of the majority of freedom icons who were also detained in these centres?

What I am asking is: what is a prison in the mind of a black South African? Do we really think it is the solution to our problems given our history of incarcerations and the illustrious halls of fame therein?

To be honest, prisons have no place in modern day South Africa. It’s time we became truly reconciliatory societies – societies that deal with their problems head on instead of locking them away in overcrowded cells and expecting miracle reforms to happen.

*Unathi Kondile teaches New Media at the University of Cape Town.

**Illustration © Sasan.

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  1. Rol says:

    Unathi, thanks for this important topic, I only wish your article were longer. We’re stuck in a looped cycle of thinking on ‘corrective detention’ – I mean, it is correctly called the department of correctional services, but really that’s a generous description. At best it’s a holding pen for our problems. Kind of like having a great big dam of sewage, which we want to remove from the general water supply, but in fact we know we’ll either have to treat that water SOMEtime or else just pump it back into the sea after a few years of mellowing. Hey, the sea is vast and will dilute that shit with ease.

    Unfortunately there is also so much righteous anger and frustration directed towards criminals and criminality that overshadows any rational debate on how to change our approach to ‘Correctional Services’. News24 comments will read: “Ah, so what, you want to just let all the rapists out hey?” “I’m tired of all this talk of prisoner rights, what about our rights?”, “put these animals away for ever” and my personal favourite, “I’ll tell you what’ll sort these buggers out, lets bring the death penalty back”. Angry Seffricans spend more oxygen begging for punishment of criminals than for promoting schemes to keep our sons from growing up to be killers and thieves….

    Band-Aid philosophies….

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  2. Thato Tsotetsi says:

    Nice piece, valid points. I think Rol should write an indepth follow up…

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  3. zo says:

    Comparing rapists and murderers to Nelson Mandela is opportunist on your part to make a silly point. Prisons have been used to seal social problems without dealing with the inherent problems but there hasn’t been an alternative solution. Societies use prisons because they are the most effective. And how is this about black/township/institutional racism? Should we do away with prisons in South Africa and ignore the ones in France ’cause they have white prisoners?

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  4. Urk says:

    Damn right. Most annoying to me is that our Incorrect Services recon Dewani would be ok in prison. We are all deluded if we think so. Moreover (Zo try this on for size) – by persisting with the current inadequante, inappropriate system of punishment (rather than rehabilitation) we are all complicit in every rape that takes place in prison. we condone it. While I cannot offer comprehensive solutions, I cannot agree with the absurdity and inhumanity of the status quo.

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  5. Rol says:

    Zo, I think the point is that prisons are horribly ineffective. They don’t work. They worsen our crime problems in the long run. There is no ‘correction’ going on, on the contrary many individuals will be released in a more damaged state than they went in. We continue to do things as we have always done them because we lack the funds, imagination and POLITICAL WILL to do otherwise. We can’t even hang on to the same correctional services minister for more than a year or two – wait and see, Minister Sbu Ndebele will be out of correctional services and sent on to Justice or Agriculture or Communications or some other shit in less time that it takes most prisoners to even get a trial (didn’t take him long to fuck up KZN or the Transport Ministries, maybe he can even go for a record this time round!)

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  6. Storm says:

    I agree that prisons are a solution from the past and we are complicit in the terrible world of prisoners, its a subject I have pondered about often but have never come up with a plausable, out of the box solution. The closest I have come to a solution is the Guardian Angel organisation that strives to cut crime at the roots, by encouraging societies to take back their moral values and streets. It starts with simply cleaning streets, painting out graffitti, creating attractive and safe play parks and schools. It’s all about being proud of your neighboorhood and proud of yourself. Raising the bar. They work within communities to help them to reestablish themselves as communities, instead of terrified individuals locked into their own homes. This is obviously a long term project that can only tackle one area at a time and will still never do away with crime, so what to do about it. Somewhere out there I am sure a solution is brewing in somebodies brain;

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  7. Nozomi says:

    And here’s what I’ve found. Goldstein’s various fuigres on the crime rates of police-reported incidents are correct, incl. about the huge % diff’s b/w 1962 & 2009.But in light of the pts. that you, Dr. Reed, & many others have made about the diff’s b/w crime reporting, classifying, & record keeping in the 60’s & thereafter, & how the historical stats leave off in ’75, but the rates are very similar from ’74 to 76, let’s take 1975 as the cutoff b/w the two periods.So for the category of Total (police-reported) Criminal Code Offenses (excluding traffic offenses), it turns out there was a 147% increase from 1962 to ’75, but an -8.3% decrease b/w 1976 and 2009. And for Violent crime, there was a 165% increase from 1962 to ’75, and (I hesitate to say “but only”) a 57.5% increase b/w 1976 and 2009.For Property crime, there was a 138% increase from 1962 to ’75, but a -34.6% decrease b/w 1976 and 2009.For Other Criminal Code offenses, there was a 168% increase from 1962 to ’75, and a 35.0% increase b/w 1976 and 2009. And here’s an important one Goldstein left out: the Homicide rate (per 100,000): which ranged from 1.4 in ’62, to 3.0 in ’76, to 1.8 for the last few years in a row, for a 114% increase from 1962-75; a -37.9% decrease from 1976-2009; and only (?) a 28.6% change from 1962 to 2009. BTW, StatCan’s holdings on the (not nec’ly reported to the police) victimization studies can be found via: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/subject-sujet/subtheme-soustheme.action;jsessionid=75BD43D7599C55297A6B682D41884D6D?pid=2693&id=455&lang=eng&more=0Finally, what I found more interesting about the historical stats was the big diff. b/w the Actual offenses & the _Cleared_ ones: where the latter are, “those for which at least one charge has been laid or for which there is enough information to support the laying of a charge but the police are unable to do so for some reason (e.g., death of the suspect)” [or where they violated their rights in the investigation or extraction of the confession, I’d surmise, or where the victims refuse to testify, etc.]The diff. b/w them is thus those w. enuff evidence that could actually have a good shot at getting a conviction (assuming they caught the offenders). And there’s a _huge_ difference b/w the two for some of those categories: such that only an average of 30% of actual (reported) Crimes of Violence in Canada could proceed to trial in that period; 72% of Property crimes; 54% of Other Criminal Code offences; 33% of Federal Drug offences; 12% of Other Federal statute offences; 4% of Provincial statute offences; and 15% of Municipal bylaw offences… or 46% of the Total offenses reported by police between 1962 and 1975.That may be a big part of the reason the reporting has been dropping off: if only half of the crimes we report can even go to trial for one reason or another even when the cops do believe us, then what’s the point, etc.

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  8. Lola says:

    I think all white South Africans should watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqYnaFQlxyQ

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