Why government should focus more on keeping people out of prison

The question is why does the government not focus more on keeping people out of prison – a more cost-effective and humane solution?

Bernard Mitchell is trying hard to stay out of prison.

He served 20 years for an armed robbery and murder, and ended up in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town where he joined the 26s, one of the feared number gangs that rule prison life in South Africa.

The numbers are an extension of the various gangs that operate in the Cape Flats.

Mitchell joined one of the more ignominious ones, the Americans.

In January the 48-year-old was released on parole and is now trying to build a life “on the outside”.

But this is not without challenges.

“It’s a nightmare. I left Cape Town because of the gang situation there, otherwise I would get killed. I wanna start a new life but I can’t find a job, I have no skills, I’m full of tattoos. When people see me, they immediately see an ex-prisoner and gangster. Who will hire me like this?” he asks.

“I think about going back to prison or going back to my gang where I would get the love and support I’m seeking but it will be short-lived cause it’s a world I don’t want to enter anymore.”

Mitchell’s conundrum is one faced by the approximately 300 000 inmates who leave prison every year.

Staying out of prison is an uphill battle considering the 27% unemployment rate and the burden of a criminal record.

On the Cape Flats, where prolific gangs provide a social network and a sense of belonging, this challenge is more stark.

Blankets reek of piss

Family members and friends form a snaking queue outside Pollsmoor Prison on a chilly Saturday morning at about 6am.

Some women carry babies on their backs; youngsters stand around in groups and smoke. As the sun climbs above the mountain, warders begin letting people inside.

Visitors have a five-hour wait ahead of them before they finally get to see their loved ones for a 20-minute visit.

Inmate Sebastian Mark Williams entered Pollsmoor’s gates just before Christmas last year, following a murder conviction.

He sits behind a glass partition with an intercom that doesn’t work.

The long wait reflects the overcrowding rates at Pollsmoor. Medium A, where Williams is housed is, according to the latest statistics, 194% overcrowded.

“There are 68 guys in my cell, built for 30 people. There are no working urinals, the blankets reek of piss, we’re forced to sleep two in a bed and some guys sleep on the floor. My body is covered in a rash. One of the guys in my cell has a boil that is so bad he can’t walk. But healthcare is available only in very serious cases.”

Williams’ comments elicit a sigh of desperation from attorney with Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) Clare Ballard.

In 2016 LHR took the department of correctional services to court over Pollsmoor’s abominable conditions, specifically in the remand section, housing awaiting-trial prisoners.

At the time the remand section was 300% overcrowded.

On December 5 2016 the Cape Town High Court agreed that prison conditions were inhumane, unconstitutional and unacceptable.

“It was an incredibly scathing indictment of the department. The court ordered the department to come up with a comprehensive plan to address all the problems we had outlined. The court also ordered the department to reduce overcrowding to 150% by June 2017.”

The department provided the judge with two interim progress reports, but Ballard is not impressed.

“It managed to bring down overcrowding in the remand section to 147% by moving inmates within the prison and to other prisons in the Western Cape. But this is not a long-term solution. It hasn’t addressed the deplorable plumbing in the building. The department claims it is too old to deal with the kind of renovations that are required. Pollsmoor is in a terrible condition. It is simply not good enough; you need facilities with proper sanitation.”

This sluggish pace of progress followed not just the 2016 court orders, but also a scathing 2015 report by Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron and a 2012 Constitutional Court judgment on the prevalence of TB in Pollsmoor.

The question is why does the government not focus more on keeping people out of prison – a more cost-effective and humane solution?

Most of Pollsmoor’s problems – the spread of TB, gang violence and broken sanitation – stem from systemic overcrowding.

The department failed to respond to questions about the lack of progress at Pollsmoor Prison.

South Africa has the highest incarceration rate on the continent, ranking 12th in the world.

Police often arrest first and investigate later, funnelling high numbers of legally innocent people into the system.

As many as 8 000 people end up behind bars because they were unable to pay the bail amount.

Another contributing factor is recidivism – repeat offenders. While there is a lack of research around this topic and few statistics, former national commissioner of correctional services Zach Modise claims the country has a recidivism rate of between 60% and 70%, which is extremely high.

Department spokesperson Logan Maistry failed to provide reliable numbers on how many former offenders end up in prison again or why it has not managed to keep track of this group.

Instead, he stated: “The percentage of parolees without violations a year stood at 98.8% in the 2016/17 year.”

Interrupting violence

Several projects in the Western Cape aim to bring that number down – on a shoestring budget.

Craven Engel, a pastor in Hanover Park on the Cape Flats, started an exit programme for gang members in 2012 called Ceasefire, based on a pilot project in Chicago that successfully reduced gang murders.

“There were many kids, gang members, who turned to me for help to exit the gangs, that’s why I started the programme,” he said.

Using audio sensors placed in strategic places in Hanover Park, Gugulethu and Manenberg, Ceasefire interrupters, former gang members themselves, will move to where the gunfire is heard and try to talk the gang leaders out of attacking the opposing gang.

“We come from the gangs and we are an antidote to gang violence,” says Albert Matthews, one of Ceasefire’s 15 interrupters.

Ceasefire has a list of about 168 known “shooters”, people walking around with weapons, willing to shoot. “They have indicated they want to change, they have not yet stopped shooting, but they want to exit,” says Engel, who has set up a programme for former gang members so that they can train as sailors or find work in the hospitality and catering industry.

Participants are housed in a halfway house that looks like a community hall, close the beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Inside there is a computer lab, a makeshift gym and a big kitchen next to a dining hall.

On both sides of the building shipping containers are converted into units where Ceasefire men and women live for their three months’ rehabilitation. After that they can enrol in the “live/work” programme for another year, during which they are helped to re-establish ties with their families, and find and keep work.

“Pollsmoor is home to me. Everything is there,” says Kenneth Donsen (31), part of the 28s inside and a Mongrels gang member before and after he went to prison. But when he met Engel he decided to leave the gangster life behind.

“I want to make a success of my life. I was too far into the gangs; they brainwash you. I only know the life of crime and prison. I’m clean now and I’m working with all the guys who come in here and help them change their lives for the better.”

Donsen is a monitor, supervising the new arrivals at the halfway house. His friend, Ensler Williams, was part of the 26s in Pollsmoor.

The two friends from opposing prison gangs agree that prison didn’t help them. Williams said: “In prison we learnt more about crime than we did outside”.

Endless cycle of crime, punishment

A 2006 research report, titled Factors that influence adult recidivism: an exploratory study in Pollsmoor Prison, by psychologist Sandy Hoffman echoes this.

“Pollsmoor is the university of crime,” one of the respondents says. “I am scared of the outside world, because in prison I am a gang leader and a somebody, but outside prison I am a nobody and a criminal.”

Hoffman points out that gangs’ social structures mimic strict prison conditions in which inmates are not encouraged to think for themselves, but rather focus on “being obedient and compliant to survive in the prison environment.”

Rehabilitation programmes in prison are scarce and often provided only towards the end of the sentence, when the inmate is getting ready for parole.

“A stereotype exists in society that the harsher the prison environment and punishment is, the better the chances are that rehabilitation will take place,”
Hoffman says.

Former inmates fulfil their need for belonging and acceptance in gangs after their release, creating an endless cycle of crime and punishment.

The gap between prison and free society, Hoffman says, can be bridged in half-way houses.

Psychology student and volunteer at Pollsmoor, Stephanie Anne van Wyk, noticed that the women she worked with in prison returned to prison within three years, motivating her to write her 2014 master’s thesis for Stellenbosch University on recidivism and rehabilitation.

A halfway house, she writes, “is a transitional space [which] provides a link between prison and society … , a space that provides psychological safety and growth.”

Despite the evidence pointing to the positive effects, there is little to no governmental support for halfway houses or a post-prison approach focused on healing rather than punishment. Ceasefire and Engels’ halfway house do not receive any government funding and depend on individual donations.

The department invests a mere 3.75% of its R23.8 billion budget in inmates’ social reintegration.

Venessa Padayachee, the advocacy manager for the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro), thinks the lack of support for reintegration initiatives has little to do with money.

“The department, as much as it supports restorative justice programming, remains predominantly punitive in its approach. Its community corrections officers, with the exception of a few, do very little in terms of reintegrating former offenders; they strictly monitor parole conditions and place additional burdens on released offenders.”

What is needed, Padayachee says, is a complete mind shift.

“If we want to tackle overcrowding and recidivism, we should be investing in reintegration efforts, increasing alternatives to incarceration and applying a more restorative justice paradigm.”

Maistry says: “The department manages 218 fully fledged community corrections offices in all nine provinces, providing services to offenders in the system. In the medium term, spending is mainly on facilitating the social reintegration of offenders into communities through the effective management of non-custodial sentences and parole in partnerships with external partners and community-based projects.”

Beyond bars

On the other side of Cape Town from the Cape Flats, the Waterfront sparkles in the midday sun and Nwabisa Njaba (35) mixes a cocktail at the Gin Dock.

In 2010 she was convicted of fraud and sentenced to house arrest for four years.

Following a presidential pardon, she joined the Beyond Bars Academy, established by Stephanie Simbo, a French/Haitian bartender who arrived in South Africa two years ago.

Struck by the hopelessness of people leaving prison, she decided to get involved. She used her contacts in the hospitality industry and convinced various bars and restaurants to employ women with a criminal record.

After a six-month preparatory course, the women start work.

“My brother went to jail in France. And because of the lack of support post-prison, we made a pinky promise to each other to support more people like him,” Simbo says.

She finances the project herself and has raised some funds through crowd-funding. Currently, there are 10 women enrolled in the programme.

The new gang

Although these projects disrupt the pipeline feeding reoffenders into Pollsmoor, professor Baz Dreisinger aims to create a whole new one.

An English professor at the City University of New York (Cuny), a Fullbright scholar and author of Incarceration Nations, Dreisinger established a Prison to College Pipeline (P2CP) in 2011, which allows prisoners to prepare for a college degree at Cuny after their release.

Currently, about 60 men in Otisville Correctional Facility are enrolled in the programme inside prison and about 40 men are studying at Cuny.

Since the programme’s inception, 46 former prisoners have earned college credits through the programme and seven have graduated. Interestingly, only 12% of participants have been re-incarcerated, which compares favourably to the 42% national recidivism rate in the US.

In 2013 the Rand Corporation research institute conducted a meta-analysis of available research on “the association between correctional education and reductions in recidivism”.

The authors concluded that inmates who participated in educational programmes had 43% lower odds of reoffending once released and their chances of finding jobs increased substantially.

Dreisinger noticed that the New York P2CP provides students with a sense of belonging. “One of the students left the notorious Bloods gang and enrolled in the P2CP. He now calls us his new gang.”

Recently Dreisinger set up a similar project in Pollsmoor, in collaboration with Stellenbosch University.

P2CP has two components: an educational programme in prison which prepares inmates for the second component, a post-release multiple-year degree at Stellenbosch.

This education continuum creates a transition between prison and what Hoffman terms “free society”. The incarcerated students will study with Stellenbosch students.

Mitchell, who says all he wants is a life in which he can be himself and be safe from the streets, would be a good candidate for P2CP.

He recently moved from Alberton back to his Cape Flats “hood” after his brother-in-law threw him out the house. His friends gave him a place to stay.

However, he said: “It’s so difficult, all my friends are drug dealers here.”

The P2CP educational programme will be launched officially in July, hopefully before Mitchell rejoins a gang.

“I will fall into the gangs again; they are the only people who accept and know me.”

The correctional and service department meanwhile, seems to agree that a sense of home and belonging is essential to curbing the extreme recidivism rates.

“The department recognises the family as the basic unit of society. The family is the primary level at which corrections should take place … Our successes in crime prevention and rehabilitation are intimately connected to how effectively we are able to address the anomalies in families that put people at risk with the law at the primary level – that is at family level.”

Published in City Press

Photo by Leon Knipe: Tragedy A 15-year-old was one of many who was killed by gangs in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats.

Ruth Hopkins

Ruth is an award-winning investigative reporter who writes about human rights and criminal justice issues. Her latest book, Misery Merchants, Life and Death in a Private South African Prison was published in February 2020. Learn more about Ruth.