VIGILANT: If we keep an eye on prison conditions, we can better monitor indicators needed for our progress, says the writer. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

The death of an offender at Groenpunt Prison due to a beating by warders provoked discussion of editorial integrity and constitutional concerns with clarity in the article “When perpetrators become victims” by Ruth Hopkins, Carolyn Raphaely and Anton Harber (January 21).

Their discussion focused primarily on freedom of the press and constitutional issues involved in ensuring the safety and security of offenders in the correctional system.

The article raised two points of discussion for me. The first concerns violence in prisons and the second concerns “apartheid-era tactics”. The writers discuss violence from a human rights and constitution perspective in terms of which offenders should be protected under the law of the land and the values of the constitution.

This provokes a difficult question: to what extent do prisons exist as representations of our society? Are our prisons a reflection of our national character and is our national soul expressed through its institutions? If prisons are indeed a reflection of our national character, then there is no doubt that our prisons manifest a distilled and stark representation of us all.

The picture emerging from our correctional facilities is not a pretty one.

Jails are overcrowded, filled with sentenced and awaiting-trial offenders; some facilities have outstanding reputations, some really awful.

All correctional facilities are staffed by people – warders and officials – who have contact on a regular basis with offenders, and it is the way this interaction between the offenders and officials is enacted that sets the tone within the facility.

The article about Groenpunt did not manage to capture or express the deeply complex and nuanced relationship between offenders and their keepers, and between correctional facilities and society at large.

The article, through its tone, argues that prisons should provide safe environments for offenders. I argue that a prison is no safer than the community within which it is located. As a nation we need to face facts – we are a verbally and physically violent bunch and warders, like the rest of us, live and work in communities that are part and parcel of the South African experience.

South African prisons are populated and operated largely by South Africans, and therefore the goings-on within a correctional facility are highly telling with regard to the state of our nation.

If the reports of riots, prison beatings and similar activities are true, then this indicates stress not just in our correctional facilities, but in the surrounding communities as well.

In the movies the warders are often portrayed sitting behind bulletproof glass and metal security gates. In reality, the warders are in physical contact with offenders on a daily basis. Relationships are formed and, as in all communities, tensions rise and fall at different times of the year and according to the pervasive culture of the facility.

There is no excuse for the death of the offender at the hands of officials, but it is also naïve to assume that warders have had sufficient training and support to have acquired a professional value system that overrides the national habit of responding to conflict with fists. They are also human, have to deal with stress on a daily basis and require the ability to engage with offenders while remaining cognisant of their duties as warders. They may have the power, but they are always outnumbered when on the job, setting up the conditions for intensive and explosive social interactions, erupting violently at times.

This leads to the second issue noted in the article, namely the writers’ repeated reference to “apartheid-era” torture techniques. To imply and describe violence and torture techniques perpetrated by people in power against the powerless as an “apartheid-era technique” almost inadvertently removes responsibility from the perpetrators. As long as we keep using apartheid as an excuse for our failures we will never take responsibility for our actions. The ongoing problems with prison conditions, shoddy education and inhumane health-care services are largely the constructs of this government and the mistakes it has made, and continues to make, since 1994.

It is naïve and unreasonable to expect a perfect country or government, but constantly blaming apartheid for unacceptable situations and circumstances is not helpful.

There is a deep irony in our correctional system in that it is probably the last system that can exercise transformative social influences over its population.

We have no conscription or national scout movement and few shared national experiences besides sport to bind us as a people.

We treat our education system with obscene flippancy, imposing contested concepts like outcomes-based education on an entire generation of young minds, and then change the agenda again and again.

For many offenders, particularly those with long sentences, a correctional facility offers opportunities to acquire literacy skills, an education or even a trade.

Not only do they leave better educated, but they leave with a better education than most of the warders in the system.

It is fortunate that the journalists witnessed the beating of the offender, not in order to apportion blame to the Department of Correctional Services, but rather to further the conversation about who we are regarding our national identity.

We need to ask questions about the education department employees receive, their induction programmes and what ongoing development courses they participate in.

Most important, we need to keep a vigilant eye on the conditions in our prisons, the conditions experienced by men and woman offenders in the system, their education and health on entry into a facility.

Through closely monitoring this and also the interrelationship between offender and overseer, we will have the opportunity to evaluate and monitor crucial indicators necessary for our country’s progress.