Ronald Lamola. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO/Sowetan
Ronald Lamola. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO/Sowetan

About a week before new justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola embarked on a public relations visit to the Brandvlei Correctional Centre, a video emerged that allegedly showed inmates fighting at Durban’s Westville prison — using batons seemingly provided by wardens. Another video reportedly showed inmates snorting cocaine in the prison, one of the "big five" notorious correctional facilities in SA.

The videos made for the kind of headlines Lamola bemoaned during his visit to Brandvlei, a so-called new-age facility set in the picturesque area between Worcester and Rawsonville in the Western Cape. A rainbow made an appearance on the day, hanging over the prison.

Lamola told correctional services staff that only the bad news emanating from SA’s prisons makes headlines, while "the good work you are doing here every week does not … We must strive to make the good work make headlines."

This is, of course, a noble objective. And there are genuinely interesting and important things being done in SA’s prisons. At Brandvlei, for example, inmates are learning valuable skills such as baking bread, milking cows and making butter. They’re even receiving broadcasting training in a new, state-of-the-art radio studio.

But such stories are overshadowed by the darker side of SA’s prisons: the fighting, drugs, smuggling and tender scandals — disgraced facilities management company Bosasa, for example, allegedly secured prison contracts through bribery. Then there’s prisons boss Arthur Fraser, who has been accused of creating shadow state security structures. And overcrowding that undermines efforts at rehabilitation.

In a debate before Lamola’s address, a correctional services employee summarised some of the challenges facing staff: "In the morning, when you arrive at work, morale is high. [But when there are] only two people to unlock 100 offenders, the morale automatically leaves everyone … There is no more positive [attitude]."

She also bemoaned the lack of resources available when it comes to offering classes to offenders — and the lack of impact these seem to have.

"If we give these classes, and it’s positive, why are these offenders returning? And it’s exactly the same ones. They go through a class, one, two, three times a year … [Offenders] go out, and within two months they are back.

If you send someone to prison, even for six months, chances are they will come out more criminalised [than when they went in]
James Selfe

"How can we sit here and say [the system] is working when we know we have a lack of resources, we have a lack of staff?"

It is the upskilling of prisoners — so that they can more easily be reintegrated into society — that Lamola has taken to heart. Addressing staff and prisoners, he said: "We must see the inmates as people who are in a boarding school, who are here to be taught." In this way, they are more likely to contribute to the economy on their release.

"The biggest task I want to see happening is the work of reintegrating offenders into society," Lamola said. He wants to review policies related to the upskilling of prisoners — and, he says, if budget is the concern, the labour department must be roped in.

He believes it’s a waste of resources to incarcerate someone for a decade and then release him or her without any skill having been obtained during that time.

Under its mission — contributing to a just, peaceful and safer SA — the correctional services department is tasked with ensuring effective and humane incarceration of inmates, as well as ensuring the rehabilitation and social integration of offenders.

An analysis of the 2019/2020 departmental budget shows administration and incarceration receive far more resources than rehabilitation, care and social reintegration. Of the R25.4bn allocated for the financial year, 78% goes towards those two items (59% to incarceration and 19% to administration). Rehabilitation and social reintegration — both key to Lamola’s plans for the department — receive just 12% of the budget.

One of the challenges facing Lamola is overcrowding: at any given time, SA’s prisons are about 38% over capacity — particularly those prisons, such as Westville, near the metros. But Lamola doesn’t consider this a crisis; he says the international standard for overcrowding is about 34%.

"It is a challenge, yes, but it’s not as bad as the level of a crisis," Lamola tells the FM. "It’s something we are still able to manage and still able to handle."

To this end, he says there are plans to develop additional infrastructure — including expanding Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru prison. A new correctional services facility has also opened in Mpumalanga, and about 400 beds will be added in Limpopo in about October.

The DA’s James Selfe, who has sat on the correctional services portfolio committee in parliament for about two decades, says while overcrowding may not look dramatic as a national average, it is drastically higher in prisons such as Kgosi Mampuru; the Johannesburg Correctional Centre, better known as Sun City; and the Western Cape’s Pollsmoor. He says this overcrowding is "worse over the weekends and worse at night".

Adding to the pressure of overcrowding is the high level of unionisation among correctional services staff, absenteeism, stress and an inmate-official ratio that is nowhere near where it should be.

Selfe is emphatic that gangs run the prisons — and that those on the outside operate seamlessly with the gangs inside prisons.

"I think Lamola is a very nice man," says Selfe. "[But] if you send someone to prison, even for six months, chances are they will come out more criminalised [than when they went in]."

What it means

SA’s new justice minister has a heart for prisoners but needs a firm hand to tackle a host of problems

He is of the opinion that the situation in SA’s prisons can be turned around — but that will require some hard decisions to be taken, including perhaps expunging criminal records for first offences, subject to certain conditions. It’s a move that will likely allow first offenders to find work more easily in a society that takes a hard view on criminals.

Selfe says one of the key drivers of overcrowding is the large number of prisoners awaiting trial: about 44,500 detainees are on remand in SA. He believes those remand detainees should be released on bail, which should be lowered for those who can’t afford it. A person remanded for a minor offence may be unable to post even R1,000 for bail, he explains. That person will then have to spend time in an overcrowded prison, where he will come into contact with the prison gangs, and may leave the facility more criminal than before.

Selfe says taking a new approach to the about 44,500 remand detainees will deal with a significant chunk of the overcrowding problem, given a general detainee population of more than 160,000.

He also believes prison sentences should be a minimum of two years — less than that is not long enough for prisoners to take part in programmes geared towards correction, and results in prisoners lying around until they are released. For sentences shorter than two years, he says prisoners should undertake community service. This would take another 20,000 detainees out of the system.

Selfe adds that an agreement should be reached within the Southern African Development Community that prisoners be repatriated to their home countries. This would reduce SA’s prison population by a further 12,000-odd inmates.

Ultimately, Selfe believes a rehabilitative regime is possible in SA — provided the country’s prisons are not overcrowded, the gangs are dealt with in a productive manner, and prison officials are dedicated to rehabilitation.

But for that to happen, deeply unpopular choices have to be made by Lamola, who at least seems to have a heart for SA’s prisoners — even if society doesn’t.