SA leading in respect of women incarceration

By the Correctional Services National Commissioner Zach Modise

The September 2015 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies on women incarceration trends in the world says, over the past 15 years, female inmate populations increased “sharply” and “faster” by about 50%, with the world median women incarceration rates standing at 4.4 per 100 thousand population.

In this regard, South Africa has been barking the international trend, with a decline of female inmate population by 8% between 2000 and 2015, from 3966 to 3029 in its 243 correctional facilities nationally.

Ideally, this narrative should find itself into the mainstream of the dialogue on how crime and corrections is handled in South Africa. However, the dominant negative narrative, mainly in the media, may leave a really bad taste in people’s mouths and undermine numerous collective societal, criminal justice system and correctional services efforts to build a safer and more humane environment.

South Africa is also making progress in a number of areas, including the progressive realisation of our constitutional, legislative and policy imperative, as well as in implementing various international protocols on the management of female inmate population. These international instruments include the much celebrated Nelson Mandela Rules, which are an amended and improved version of the UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners.

It should be noted that these assertions are not negating the reality that, a lot more still has to be done to attain the ideals enunciated in these strategic documents, and in transforming historically warehouses for inmates into rehabilitation friendly correctional centres that advance the promotion of human dignity.

However, reporting the remaining challenges as reflective of a failed system of corrections, is a disservice to the nation and inhibits quality conversation on corrections in South Africa.

Even the 2014-15 annual report of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), attest to the progress made, while still calling on us to mind the gap and accelerate corrective and developmental interventions to close them.

The framework I have referred to calls for a number of minimum standards we should all strive to attain and build on, which include:

- Appropriate hygiene and nutritional needs of female inmates especially pregnant women and those with babies;

- Creation of a gender sensitive environment which promotes human dignity and frowns up on discrimination;

- Provision of appropriate health care services; covering preventative tests such as PAP Smear, pre and post-natal care as well as intra-partum care;

- Encouraging higher familial contact, particularly with their babies and children;

- Provide equitable rehabilitation and development opportunities for female offenders, who generally because of their proportionally very small size compared to their male counter-parts may be disadvantaged.

The country’s correctional system in particular and the criminal justice system in general, need to be appreciated for progress made, without losing the critical solidarity required to ensure that no one rests on his/her laurels, or becomes complacent.

Turning around the 104 year old prison system over the last 22 years can never be an easy task. Of the country’s 243 correctional centres, 22 are for female inmates.

Over the past ten years, the department has built 16 dedicated mother and baby units, which were designed to meet a number of hygienic, developmental, health and other needs of mothers and babies. Although these centres may not have reached the minimum standards for full accreditation as early childhood development (ECD) centres by the Department of Social Development, they are getting closer and negotiations are currently underway to attain a ‘partial ECD’ status. The department is currently accommodating 81 babies with their mothers in these centres, and one of the best practices is the Pollsmoor Mother and Baby Unit.

Over the last five years, the department has invested millions of rands improving its facilities and in building 16 mother and baby units which are properly ventilated, with sufficient natural light and stimulants for the development of young minds. Inmate mothers are allowed by legislation to spend about two years, effectively bonding with their babies, while assisting in the critical formative developmental stages of children. Special diets are provided for pregnant women and the young ones, as done to those with medically prescribed special therapeutic diets.

Female offenders can also access external health care services from public institutions, while those wanting to access private medical care at their own cost, are allowed as the legislation and policies provide.

Correctional Services extends its appreciation to a number of non-governmental organisations as well as families of female inmates with babies, for their collaboration in improving their incarceration conditions in correctional centres. However there are a number of families who are non-responsive to our efforts of facilitating:

- Familial contacts and visits; and

- Taking over responsibilities of caring for the babies after the permissible two years of staying with their mothers.

The department is undertaking these efforts conscious of the context the correctional facilities are in. The endeavours are meant to ensure that inmates have access to health care services that are “commensurate” with what ordinary free citizen can access from public health care facilities, as the Correctional Services Act prescribes.

Correctional Services is on course to build developmental correctional centres, where fairly all facilities meet the ideals of new generation correctional centres. As the White Paper on Corrections assets, corrections is a societal responsibility, and we need to work together with all state institutions, stakeholders, and families to achieve our ideals.