Released inmates must be re-integrated into society
Marginalising ex-offenders risks cultivation of career criminals
In 2020 minister of justice and correctional services Ronald Lamola revealed that the SA prison population was estimated at 155,000 people.
This was at the height of the Covid-19 response, that included the release of about 19,000 inmates in 2020 alone. While a mass release of prisoners was a global practice when Covid-19 necessitated a reduction in crowding, the public response to this in a crimeriddled and violent country like SA was a knee-jerk push back at the idea that convicted criminals would be allowed early parole.
This is in part because many do not feel like justice is easy to come by in SA. From poor service when reporting crimes at a local police station to sometimes prohibitive costs of civil cases, SA’s inequalities are often reflected in people’s experiences of justice delayed and denied in police stations and courts across the country.
So, it’s not surprising that when convicted inmates are released, they meet a society that is hostile towards them. Inmates are the face of crime for many victims who have never seen the faces of those who have mugged them, victims who never saw the hijackers who killed their relatives.
Regardless of their actual crimes, released inmates represent in the minds of many the crimes of corrupt looters of state resources that may never even be named, never mind see the inside of a jail. But, as a country that has chosen a restorative rather than a punitive approach to justice and incarceration, we must include ways to integrate inmates who have faced the legal consequences.
The choice to use a restorative justice stance is both informed by SA’s past of gross injustices and violence by the apartheid regime, that abused the police, the courts and prison as a tool to enforce inhumane punishment on both lawbreakers and freedom fighters alike.
The drafters of the constitution, in the preamble, remind us that ours is a social compact that seeks to redress the injustices of the past through among other things, improving the quality of life of all people and freeing the potential of each person. Despite their crimes, inmates remain people. They are still members of this society.
Incarceration is rarely for life. Most offenders will be released into general society again, particularly young people who were imprisoned. This is a fact we will not escape. Thus, it is important that we plan for it rather than rile against it. The point of a restorative justice system is to ensure that justice is not only about punishment but resocialisation of offenders that reorients them away from lawlessness towards accepting responsibility for both the past and future and planning to contribute positively when released.
Upon release, young people find re-integration is hampered by systems and cultural attitudes that continue to punish them by excluding them from job opportunities or social development programmes.
Regardless of work they do as personal development, or time that passes between their past offence and efforts for a better future, their freedom remains limited, quality of life diminished and future potential is capped.
Founder of the Incarceration Nation Network, Dr Baz Dresinger, argues for a more systemic and comprehensive approach to re-integration to society of released inmates. Dresinger posits a combination of an investment into education, business and entrepreneurial skills and a parole system to incentivise ex-offenders to be active in their communities.
Ultimately, a society that continues to marginalise exoffenders only risks high levels of re-offending and the cultivation of career criminals who create alternate and counterproductive social bonds based on owning the labels of criminality that society will not give them the opportunity to leave behind.
Finding solutions is as much about the prospects of ex-offenders as it is about the development of a future SA we all deserve. On November 10, the Robben Island Museum will host a seminar titled, “Locked Out: The Crisis of Reintegration in South Africa and the World” to reflect what needs to be done to rethink restorative justice and reintegration in a practical way.