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Prisons: Rehabilitation or a breeding grounds of criminal masterminds?

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane African News Agency (ANA) – Cells were searched at Pollsmoor Prison during a National Festive Season Security Operation Plan. A large number of illegal substances and objects were confiscated. Officials have conducted a raid at section A of Pollsmoor Prison a day after the arrest of a correctional facility officer in Vanrhynsdorp, who was packaging R1.2m worth of drugs with her daughter.

By Abel Semosa

The justice system of South Africa has turned into a joke. Convicts who are being apprehended for heinous crimes in society tend to pursue some of the crimes even though they are incarcerated.

The story of Thabo Bester, a convict that escaped in Mangaung prison is living proof that prisons have turned into platforms were convicts can live lavish lifestyles and continue practising crime. What is the the Department of Correctional Services of South Africa doing about rehabilitation programmes?

As published in the website of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) South Africa, the objectives of the department are as follows:

“to detain inmates in safe secure and humane conditions in correctional centres and remand detention facilities, provide sentenced offenders with needs-based rehabilitation programmes and interventions, and reintegrate offenders into communities as law-abiding citizens by effectively managing con-custodial sentences and parole.”

However, South African correctional services are not up to standard, especially with rehabilitation of offenders in the prisons. The justice system its not doing justice to the victims. I don’t know whether they are corrupt and these correctional services lack oversight on their competences.

You might find out that there are more than one Thabo Bester stories. It is alleged that Thabo Bester even had a laptop in prison that he used to run his businesses whilst he is incarcerated. The Minster of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola alluded that the laptop was used for educational purposes but how can he study while he does not even have an Identity Document (ID)? Which institution will allow him to study without ID?

According to GroundUp news, he even ran what they called a “glamorous media company” while in prison. According to Correctional Services Act, sentenced offenders are not allowed to work or conduct business on their account. But Thabo Bester did run a business and made millions while in prison.

Besides Thabo Bester saga, it is alleged that inmates are in possession of cellphones and they are operating illicit businesses in prisons. However, cellphones are prohibited in South African prisons, but you will find inmates posting on social medias while in prison.

In 2022, the Hawks bust four prisoners who were running a scam while conducting a joint operation at Vavasor and Odi Correctional Centres in Pretoria and Mabopane. According to the Hawks, a total of 36 cell phones and 119 chargers were found from the inmates. An amount of R760,000 and R560,000 was paid into different bank accounts between May and August 2022.

Prisons seem to have become breeding grounds for criminals rather than rehabilitation centres. These were organised crimes, they impersonated police officers, sending those who run online escorting agencies arrest warrants threatening them to pay to avoid jail time.

Prisons have become the best place for criminals to conduct their businesses. Tebogo Makena and his accomplice Lucas Masemola were caught for extortion and fraud while they were in prisons.

The reason most inmates possess cell phones in prisons is due to corruption of correctional facilities staff. According to Dr Mahlogonolo Thobane, a criminologist and senior lecturer at Unisa says that there is a growing concern about the trend of contraband in prison facilities. She further alludes to corruption as the cause of ineffective rehabilitation in prisons, saying:

“as much as we want to be proud that incarceration is promoting rehabilitation, in theory, the truth is that rehabilitation in our centres is just not taking place”.

She says the latter statement after the court appearance of the four convicted prisoners for allegedly running an extortion scam from their prison cells in Gauteng.

A study by Murhula Patrick Bashiz (2019), ‘A Criminological investigation into the South African Correctional Services approach towards rehabilitation: A case study of the Westville Correctional Centre in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal’, found that the Correctional Services mission is far from being accomplished because of its failure to implement rehabilitation programmes. And international literature has proven that effective rehabilitation programmes can reduce reoffending and can be more cost-effective than other forms of sanctions.

The Department of Correctional Services and Minister of justice need to deal harshly with such convicts and make examples because more people will be victims of the convicts who are already found guilty of other crimes. Those who are behind bars can keep on hurting law-abiding citizens. These convicts don’t act alone, they are assisted by the prisoner guards. A judicial commission is needed so that an example can be made of the corrupt prison guards.

Abel Semosa is a political analyst and a member of Right for Education (RE:d). He holds and MA from Limpopo University.