Rustenburg hairdresser and convicted murderer, Simone Roets, is the first woman in Africa to be electronically tagged and the only female participant in an innovative electronic monitoring project launched by the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) at the beginning of March. Involving 150 parolees, the pilot aims to tackle chronic prison overcrowding - a problem President Jacob Zuma also attempted to address with his Freedom Day announcement of special remission of sentence for 35 000 offenders, parolees and probationers starting this week.
Roets (40) unwittingly became a member of a select band of international celebrities - including disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, media magnate Martha Stewart, Hollywood starlet Lindsay Lohan and former International Monetary Fund MD Dominique Strauss-Kahn, all of whom have been electronically tagged and monitored as part of their parole, bail or sentencing agreements.
Prior to her tagging, Roets spent twenty years behind bars for murdering a man who tried to over-power her in an incident which triggered memories of on-going childhood molestation by her father. Released on day-parole from Kroonstad Women’s Prison last year with no support or job, Roets fled to her family home in Rustenburg. “I couldn’t handle it,” she recalls. “It was like tying up a dog for years and years, then just putting him on the street.
“I met with the Minister (Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula) and told her I didn’t want to go back to Kroonstad. She said the system had failed me and she’d give me another chance if I agreed to participate in the pilot-tagging project.” After intensive therapy and counselling, the decision was a no-brainer.
DCS launched the year-long R6.8m pilot project as a result of the recommendations of a Ministerial task team established when Mapisa-Nqakula was first appointed in 2009. Though the pilot is intended for parolees serving life sentences, offenders who haven’t committed serious crimes, remand detainees who can’t afford bail of less than R1 000 and those who can’t be released because they have no fixed address –will also be included if the pilot proves successful.
Officials are hoping tagging will reduce the overall prison population by as much as one third, or 35 – 50 000 offenders, virtually eliminating overcrowding and the concomitant inhumane living conditions characterising SA’s prisons.
The harsh reality is there are people in prison who shouldn’t be there - particularly in remand facilities - and there are far too many of them. In Johannesburg Prison’s notorious Medium A facility, for example, more than 90 remand detainees are locked up for 23 hours a day in cells designed to accommodate 38. Here, petty offenders are forced to share beds with murderers and rapists and will inevitably emerge as seasoned criminals, if incarcerated for any length of time.
According to the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) 20010/11 report, eighteen correctional centres are more than 200% overcrowded – including Johannesburg Medium A (238%), Johannesburg Medium B (250%) and King Williamstown (254%).
“If we just tagged those sentenced to less than 24 months who aren’t considered dangerous to society, we could reduce offender totals by about 11-12 000,” explains Chief Deputy Commissioner Correctional Services Zach Modise. “It’s not as if we’re going to let everyone out…Each case will be carefully evaluated.”
For example, the 20 Boeremag accused detained in Pretoria Central for the past eight years would be one exception and limitations would be placed on the movements of a tagged child-molester.
To date, most pilot participants are understood to have reacted positively. “Wearing the tag irritated me in the beginning but I’m getting used to it now,” Roets says. “It’s light, waterproof and looks like a big watch. I could wear it on my wrist but prefer it on my ankle under pants where no one can see it. Imagine if someone asked me the time?”
Luckily Roets found a job as a hairdresser – a skill she acquired in prison – two weeks after her release: “While I’m doing my clients’ hair, I completely forget about being tagged. The transmitter sits on the trolley next to me. I call it my blackberry. It’s just a little thicker. I take it everywhere, even to the loo. If you’re more than a metre away, an alarm goes off. Once it went off when I was swimming. I got out the pool, acknowledged the signal and got back in the water.”
Made of plastic with optical fibres inside, it is controlled by cutting-edge satellite GPS technology 24/7 which allows correctional officers in a national control centre to monitor where inmates are at all times. Specifically designed for SA conditions, particularly for parts of the country with no electricity or cell-reception, Modise says that “if there’s buy-in, it can be rolled out on the continent in other areas with no electricity.
“Battery life is 24-hours and can be charged using solar power simply by walking in the sun. If cut, it sends a signal that it’s being tampered with. If you forget to charge it, the control center receives a signal that the battery is going down and they inform you.”
Though electronic monitoring has been widely used in the US, it’s only recently been widely adopted in countries like Canada, Australia, Singapore, Sweden and the Netherlands. After evaluating Brazilian, Australian, Israeli and American systems, DCS chose a Brazilian prototype which has been successfully tested in an under-ground garage, in the Gautrain underground and an informal settlement.
DCS is not willing to detail of the relative costs of keeping an offender in custody vs electronic monitoring, nor which option is more cost-effective. Observes penal expert Paul Silver: “It’s very expensive to maintain a car- tracking system, never mind a people-tracking system…..”
According to the JICS report, the daily per capita cost of inmate incarceration – both sentenced and remand - is R243 04/day , or R39million/day. “It’s just not economical to impose bail of R1 000 or less on someone who clearly can’t pay – 30 days incarceration will cost taxpayers R7 291 20, more than seven times the amount of the unpaid bail,’’ says one insider.
In addition, Silver believes the pilot project is fundamentally flawed. “DCS will pick prisoners for the pilot who won’t break the rules, soft guys they know won’t sabotage the system. This means the results are rigged. In any case, electronic monitoring doesn’t stop individuals committing crime, even if they’re confined to a house or local area.
“It only indicates when a person has left a designated area. It’s not indestructible. If a guy cuts it off, you can’t track him. It’ll only work with a person invested in his community. Though tagging does work well with parolees, it’s a defeatable system and one that doesn’t deter individuals from re-offending.”
Passionate about the project which he describes as “his child,” Modise believes success is dependent on the offender’s good conduct and the pre-selection process: “There’ll always be people who abuse the system but there’ll also always be human intervention with a parole officer directly responsible for each offender. The offenders will determine whether they go back to prison or not…It’s simple, if they break conditions, they go back.”
Modise would like to see electronic monitoring introduced as a sentencing option, as in the US. “If the pilot is successful, the judiciary might consider non-custodial sentencing and alternative sentencing options that allow people not considered dangerous to serve their sentence in the community,” he says. “This would make incarceration a last resort.”
Surprisingly, Roets believes people who commit serious offences like murder are better subjects for tagging than petty thieves who are often repeat offenders. “They’ll be back in prison two weeks after their release,” she says. “Someone like me will never murder again, I’ll never run away and I’m never going back to prison.”
Predictably, the pilot has some teething problems and not everyone is as upbeat as Roets. “When I’m in church and the pastor is talking about something important, sometimes it makes tweet, tweet, tweet,” says Pretoria plumber and day-parolee Michael Khesi. “Then everyone looks at me and I have to go outside to get signal. It doesn’t embarrass me but it does irritate me, mainly when I’m in church or with my girlfriend.”
After spending five years on death-row before his sentence was commuted to life in 1994, Khesi (52) believes he’s suffered enough: “I applaud the Minister for giving me this opportunity - tagging was a condition of my parole - but I think I’ve been punished enough…
“Not knowing when you’ll be hanged, if it’ll be tomorrow, the next day or the next week, is very spiritually painful. You don’t know when they’ll call you. I’ve done all the rehabilitation programmes DCS offers - Anger Management, HIV and Aids, Life Skills, Relationship Skills – and I’m fully rehabilitated. I was very young when I committed this crime…”
Modise acknowledges that tagging is only part of the solution and that there’s also a critical need to modernise and upgrade existing facilities, to provide specific facilities for first-time offenders and to separate them from hardened criminals: “Remand detainees must be held separately with their own facilities and rehabilitation opportunities. We want to provide facilities where people are incarcerated under humane conditions. By significantly reducing overcrowding, electronic monitoring is one way of achieving this.”
Meantime, Roets is looking ahead to the day her parole ends and her tag is, hopefully, removed. “For now,” she says, “I’ve made it my security guard and my best friend….”
* Raphaely is a member of the Wits Justice Project which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice.