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'Prison reform could help reduce gender-based violence in SA'

According to the professor, prisons do not rehabilitate criminals
According to the professor, prisons do not rehabilitate criminals
Image: 123RF/Stockstudio44

The SA prison system does not do much to rehabilitate criminals such as those who commit gender-based violence. This is according to Dr Baz Dreisinger, the author of Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons around the World.

She was recently at the Nelson Mandela Foundation to launch a programme for Incarceration Nation's Network (INN) for progressive prison reform.

Dreisinger spoke to SowetanLIVE during the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children on prison reform and how it can assist in combating the surge in violence against the most vulnerable in society.  

“Prisons, especially violent prisons like those in South Africa, are places that reproduce harm, thus perpetuating a cycle of harm and trauma. When men in prison who have already grown up in violent contexts are exposed to further violence and even deeper levels of trauma, they return from those settings into the community and are more likely to be violent towards women and other people,” she said.

Dreisinger said prisons are "criminogenic", which means they produce more crime instead of combating it.

“Studies all over the world have shown that prisons further damage and traumatise people who are already damaged and traumatised; this has a ripple effect on entire communities, creating deeper cycles of harm. Prisons are also generally known as 'schools of crime', educating people in further levels of crime instead of offering them positive skills and opportunities that turn them away from crime,” she said. 

Dreisinger said the SA prison system is similar to others around the world in that it has a high repeat offender rate and that 30% of prisoners are still awaiting trial.

“The violence and disease in South African prisons is also in a state of crisis. More than 550 people die in South Africa’s 243 correctional centres every year due to disease and/or violence,” she said. 

“Countries are addicted to incarceration because they and the public have been duped into thinking it’s the only way, simply because they have been doing it this way for so long—and because the public imagines that being tough on crime makes us safer, when in fact smart on crime does.”

She said that in countries such as South Africa, systemic racism and inequality means most people in jail are from a disadvantaged background. 

“Programmes that offer people job training, educational opportunities and more are ultimately cheaper in the long run because they reduce prison populations and recidivism and thus reduce costs,” said Dreisinger. 

She said a good example of these programmes is a Brazilian one where low-cost cooperative businesses are being created in prisons to upskill prisoners.  

“While there are some people who will cause great harm if they are left in society and thus do need to be kept in facilities that try to address their profound issues, the great majority of people in prisons all over the world do not fit this description; even people who have committed acts of great harm can right their wrongs via restitution, building new futures and contributing to the greater good,” she added.

* Dreisinger is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline programme and executive director of the Incarceration Nations Network (INN), a new global coalition for justice and prison reform around the world. 

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