ATLANTA, Georgia — Prisons in South Africa are considered some of the worst detention centers in the world. Reports have shown them to be sites of violence, overcrowding, human rights violations and the breeding ground for many other problems among inmates. They illustrate the weaknesses of penal systems that reflect U.S. prisons as well.
Inmate Problems in South Africa
The condition of South African prisons has raised concerns over human rights. Prisoners, like those at a facility near St. Albans, typically face humiliation, beatings, electrical shock and even torture. These are not isolated incidents, but instead continuous occurrences.
South Africa’s prison situation is merely the symptom of a larger problem. The high incarceration levels positively correlate with high rates of poverty and low rates of education. Both of these often push people to either offend or re-offend. Additionally, according to the U.N.’s Commission on Crime Prevention and Human Justice, prisons situated in developing countries like South Africa have higher rates of overcrowding compared to prisons in high-income countries. South Africa has a 75% overcrowding rate.
Moreover, prisoners that belonged to the lower socioeconomic strata prior to their incarceration are more likely to go to prison and receive longer sentences. Furthermore, they become more vulnerable to abuse, illness and even premature death. The lack of respect for basic human dignity and the lack of resources and options available to inmates feed the perpetual cycle of high incarceration rates in South Africa alongside other impoverished countries.
Other Inmate Problems: Recidivism and Re-Incarceration
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Sarah Higinbotham, a Professor of Early Modern Literature at Emory University’s Oxford College and the founder and executive director of Common Good Atlanta, recounted her 14 years of volunteer teaching experience in U.S. prisons. She said that releasing inmates out into the world likely leads to recidivism and re-incarceration if they do not receive money, job training or other useful forms of education prior to their release. The Prison Policy Initiative reported that almost half of inmates lack quality education and access to good employment prior to their incarceration. This is similar to inmates in South Africa.
Moreover, their median annual income amounted to 41% less than the income of those of similar ages who have not been incarcerated. While these are U.S.-based statistics, there are correlations between lack of education, poverty and imprisonment present in developing countries like South Africa, which focus less on prisoner reintegration into society and more on subjugation and abuse. For instance, estimates show that as high as 87% of people released from South African jails returned to a life of crime.
Cycle of Oppression
Charles Tarwater Jr., a researcher and former student of Higinbotham, argues that people have largely ignored the mental effects of incarceration. Tarwater understands this personally since he was once sentenced to life imprisonment.
There is a subtle power dynamic going on behind the scenes that perpetuates the vicious cycle to re-offend, Tarwater says. Prisons strip inmates of their individual identities and freedoms, subjecting them to an oppressor-oppressed mindset — with the state as the dominant “oppressor” and themselves as “the oppressed.”
Even after a sentence ends, this same oppressed mindset accompanies the former prisoners out into the real world. While ex-convicts experience a physical release from prison, they do not experience a mental or psychological release from the aforementioned perception they developed while serving out their sentences. Moreover, not having options to learn useful skills while in prison effectively reinforces this carceral incapacitation dynamic even when they are no longer in prison.
Facing ostracism and disenfranchisement from the general public only cements whatever feelings of helplessness they already feel. With no other options to choose from, former prisoners will often return to the only things that they are familiar with: poverty and criminal behavior. It is likely the oppressor-oppressed mindset is even stronger inside the minds of South African inmates because of the added human rights abuses.
How Education Can Help Solve Inmate Problems
Tarwater also proposes a solution to counter recidivism rates: prison education programs. These programs would especially be helpful in impoverished nations like South Africa. Specifically, he refers to vocational training as well as education in other useful, lucrative skills inmates can take with them outside of prison.
According to a report from the Emory University Economics Department, vocational training and higher levels of education among inmates have proven effective in reducing recidivism rates by at least 30%. Each additional level of education exerts a cumulative effect on re-offense reduction. Prisoners who manage to earn a master’s degree on top of all their other degrees virtually never return to crime.
Similar statistics are present within the context of South Africa where the recidivism rates of formerly imprisoned youth in 2016 dropped from around 50% to 31% with the introduction of a prison education program. However, Tarwater also notes these reductions directly correlate with a desire to actively pursue education while in prison.
Breaking the Cycle
Besides providing prisoners with employable skills and opening doors of opportunity for them upon their release, prison education programs also break the cycle of re-offense and re-incarceration by targeting the oppressive mental power dynamic that inmates pick up during imprisonment. Former inmates reportedly became more appreciative of pro-social norms they would normally have considered breaking prior to education.
Higinbotham acknowledges these realities, arguing the most important thing that could be done about inmate problems is teaching inside prisons, as she does. This can “help restore human dignity and give them (the prisoners) hope about the future they can have in our communities.” This is because it is unfair to expect former prisoners to engage in legally acceptable employment without the necessary skills and training for it.
Higinbotham also pointed out to The Borgen Project that solutions to the problem must target the socio-economic conditions that produced it in the first place. “Not only does being in college give you a sense of value and worth,” she said, “but it also teaches you to critique the social forces that are shaping your life.”
Education Turns Inmate Problems Into New Stories
The sense of value and worth that Higinbotham speaks of comes from the former inmates’ newfound ability to rewrite their life scripts, including their previous mindsets and dealing with prison problems in more empowering ways. According to Higinbotham, the key to fighting poverty and the oppressive conditions that lead people to commit crimes lies in teaching them how to see themselves as agents of their own narratives.
Higinbotham argues it is possible for prisoners to acknowledge their mistakes without identifying with them. It can also help them become more aware of the conditioning that society and the prison environment are imposing upon them, choosing to write new stories about themselves instead. More importantly, this is something that they can continue to practice after they leave correctional facilities whether in the U.S or in South Africa.
Education and COVID-19 Challenges
While the coronavirus pandemic may have proven disruptive to prison education because of the imposed social distancing, it also has led them to develop greater levels of creativity in their attempts to deal with inmate problems.
Because of prison rules regarding limited internet access, teachers have turned to more “writing-intensive, epistolary” education methods. While there are limitations to this method, it has at least allowed them to continue their work of educating prisoners until such a time when they can return to teaching them in person.
Proponents of this method, like Higinbotham, have reported it has helped them create a new kind of space within which they and their students can listen to and communicate with each other. In the end, it is one step closer to solving prisoner problems in the U.S., South Africa and impoverished nations alike during the pandemic.
How US Insights Provides Motives for Action in South Africa
The experiences of South African prisoners juxtaposed with those in U.S. prisons can be key because while prisons in the two countries are different, neither properly provide inmates with education and training, and both affect the human mind and overall strip inmates of human dignity.
The ways that the introduction of educational programs reduces recidivism in both countries further affirm their similarities. As such, Higinbotham’s support of teaching in prisons and Tarwater’s analysis of how prisons affect the minds of prisoners can be insightful into what needs to be done in South Africa to address human rights abuses, reduce recidivism rates and provide former inmates a future. In fact, their insights are applicable to all prison systems that, in Higinbotham’s words, “diminish rather than enhance human dignity, and narrow rather than expand people’s future opportunities.”
South Africa now has a prison-to-college pipeline program. It provides undergraduate education to incarcerated people in South Africa in an effort to reduce recidivism rates and create safer communities. Baz Dreisinger, an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, developed the program. She believes education plays a powerful role in the minds of incarcerated people and their futures, noting that 43% are “less likely” to re-offend when exposed to such opportunities.
– Jared Faircloth