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By Marizka Coetzer

Journalist


Criminality and inequality: Why convicts keep going back

‘Prison is a school where offenders learn how to perfect their criminal skills.’


Unemployment, poverty and inequality contribute to a climate of criminality in South Africa and these issues have to be addressed to decrease the high reoffending rates, according to crime experts.

Conflict criminologist Dr Casper Lötter said he did not think it was any longer possible to achieve rehabilitation of offenders on any significant scale.

He said there was a lot of stigma attached to offenders released from prison because there was no real possibility of rehabilitation and nothing to rehabilitate to.

“They can’t get jobs because of the social stigma, so the only way they can go forward is by evolving into criminal subcultures where they have some sort welcome because they are rejected by the mainstream culture.”

Lötter said there was no realistic possibility of rehabilitation due to the stigma.

“Things like (Jacob) Zuma released on so-called special remission, what nonsense is that?

“The problem is in a highly unequal society such as South Africa’s, there’s no justice or consequences for the rich. The poor go to prison, but the rich often evade prison. Only the wealthy and powerful escape prison. Look at Schabir Shaik, who was seen playing golf in Durban while out on medical parole, and the same with Zuma,” he said.

Lötter said prison was a school where offenders learned how to perfect their criminal skills. “Unemployment, poverty, inequality and inequality all contribute to a climate of criminality,” he said.

He said there were other ways of dealing with crime because crime was often the result of neglect or abuse during childhood.

“Maybe we should focus on areas like that and channel money into alleviating poverty and unemployment,” he said.

An ex-offender who spent just under 10 years in prison in Mozambique for smuggling at the border said he would never reoffend again.

He has a nephew serving a life sentence at a Johannesburg prison who he visits regularly.

“In prison, there is a difference between hardened criminals and soft criminals, not just physically but in how they act and operate,” he said.

The ex-offender said many people end up in prison because they need money.

“That’s how I ended up in prison. I was down to my last cents and I committed the crime to make more money.

“I’ve met offenders who returned to prison for the same offence after being released. Some return because in prison, they have a roof over their heads and food to eat, which was better than having nothing,” he added.

It took the ex-offender a year and a half to find permanent employment after his release and he said he would never reoffend “because in prison, I found God”.

Criminologist Prof Jaco Barkhuizen said there has never been a proper restorative justice programme to reintegrate offenders into their communities and restore the imbalance between the offender, the community and the victims.

He said neither the department of correctional services nor Statistics SA had complete statistics on the recidivism rates.

“Some would admit it’s about 60% to 80%, but experts state more (like) 80% to 90%.

“Our very bad social economic situation, plus the massive economic and social stigma, leads to a perfect storm, where these ex-offenders don’t get the opportunity they so desperately need to become functioning members of society, and then the only option they have left is to fall back into a life of crime,” he said.

Barkhuizen said overcrowding in the prisons was also not conducive to rehabilitation.

“It seems we were just warehousing offenders. Even with the special remissions of the minister of justice, it only makes a small dent in an already crowded under-resourced aspect of the criminal justice system.”

The solution, Barkhuizen added, was to build more prisons and have restorative justice processes in criminal trials.

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