On the evening of 22 June 2003, Eric* killed his wife. He was sentenced to 12 years in South African prison. He spent a total of six years and one month behind bars; convicted in May 2007 and released in July 2013. This is his story.
There’s no definitive way to determine whether or not a prisoner is fit for release in South Africa. As it stands, a prisoner’s release is based largely on their behaviour during their time in jail. Eric pleads to us all: “I believe if society took a greater role in going to prisons and visiting prisoners we would reduce crime rapidly. Encourage them, give them hope and let them see there’s another life out there. A lot of prisoners give up on themselves believing they’re worthless scum and when they come out, they’re angry and bitter and afraid.”
In the correctional services B-order, every prisoner is meant to have a sentence plan that should be adhered to and monitored on a monthly basis, and prisoners should be assessed yearly. Most of the time prisoners will fill in their own forms because there isn’t budget for admin staff. When it’s time for their release, prisoners will fill out their sentence plans for the warder to sign off.
Eric clarifies with a scoff: “You want to get out so you don’t complain. You sit there nodding saying ‘Yes I did all this’, and you tick all the boxes and then at the end they’ll tell you you’ve been rehabilitated. Rehabilitated my arse. I went on an anger management course; it lasted one day.” He shakes his head. “Then you get something called a pre-release programme.” Eric is laughing now.
“That’s like twenty minutes. An oke comes and puts you in a room and tells you that you must wear a condom when you fuck, how to brush your teeth, and you should look after yourself by eating properly and that you should try your best to be a good citizen. That’s it. That’s your pre-release programme.” There’s certainly no psychological preparation for life on the outside, and no assistance of any other kind either.
Prisoners won’t get released before their full sentence is up unless they have developed skills and have made amends with their victims or the victim’s family. As there is very little effort from the State to contact victims or provide means to upskill, a prisoner has few resources with which to try and change their fortune. It’s only towards the end of a prisoner’s sentence, when it’s almost time for them to be released, that there is a focus on finding skills and providing some kind of rehabilitation. Most inmates end up working in prison yards as welders or gardeners during their remaining months before release.
This is something Eric hoped to change during his time at Leeuwkop, where he spent the majority of his time in prison. Together with a woman named Sandy and a prison psychologist, Eric helped launch a restorative justice programme, which focuses on reconciling perpetrators and their victims and reintegrating prisoners into society. They even produced a short series that ran on SABC talking about the benefits of restorative justice in South African prisons.
The aim of a restorative justice programme is to get closure for perpetrators and victims by mediating a discussion between both parties. Where the perpetrators are not available, people who have committed similar crimes are asked to join the discussion. A prisoner is not expected to apologise – though, ultimately, that is part of the goal; to understand why the crime took place and give the prisoner an opportunity to repent.
What often transpires from this process is an awe-inspiring transmission of grace. The prisoners are prepared to be screamed at and verbally abused, but the one thing that comes as a shock to each prisoner is forgiveness from the victim or victim’s family. What this does for a prisoner is give them hope and the space to finally accept responsibility for their crime and actions.
Eric explains: “We are all very quick to blame other people when something in our life goes wrong. We don’t like taking responsibility. From kids we’re brought up like that. What this programme is about is not blaming anymore. At the end of ‘blame’ is ‘me’, so take responsibility and verbalise it. I stood up and said ‘I killed my wife’. The more I said it, the more I came to terms with what has happened to my life.”
Eric has some ideas on how one might tell if a prisoner is fit for release: “If you ever ask a guy why he’s [in prison], the moment he says ‘It’s a long story’ you know he is not rehabilitated because he hasn’t taken responsibility for his actions and he’s too embarrassed to tell you why he’s there. He’ll tell you he’s there because he stole a car when the truth is more likely that he hijacked someone and killed them for their car. These are the people who will continue a life of crime; the ones that cannot get to grips with what they have done.”
Eric and his team ran the programme for five years, hosting two sessions a year with around 70 prisoners in each session. “You could actually see their life change and they left the group being better people, and I believe they will stay that way,” says Eric. “We looked forward to these sessions. It gave us hope.” Unfortunately after Eric left Leeuwkop no one has taken over the restorative justice sessions he held there.
LIFE AFTER LOCKUP
With a sigh, Eric looks around him, looks up and then speaks about his new post-prison life: “Adjusting to life out of prison wasn’t as big of a step as I thought. When you come out you’re always looking behind you because you’re used to being watched and shackled all the time with warders around you. With some things, time stood still, where other things advanced beyond my imagination. When I look back on it now, yes, I still remember prison, but I always thought it would scar me for life. Every year you’re out it sort of becomes a diminishing memory. It’s almost like I wasn’t there. It’s difficult to explain. The only thing that still gives me shivers is that police truck, I don’t know what it is; I just see one of those and I go cold.”
Eric recalls being in the prison truck for the first time: “I remember looking around and seeing all these guys taking off their belts and unbuttoning their pants and I got worried. You scheme, ‘what the fuck is going on here, am I going to get raped?’, but it’s actually just these okes putting money and phones and all this stuff up their asses to smuggle it into prison.” Eric is quite open about his experiences and talks about his time willingly with friends and family. “It’s funny, most people love hearing the stories. They are initially shocked when they find out [I was] in prison but then they’re just enthralled by the stories.”
A brief smile flickers across his face then is gone. There’s a long pause. He shuffles in his seat. “Having done time in prison, I believe there’s nothing in life that could be worse than that.” The message here is not necessarily that prisoners deserve a second chance. However, it’s to our benefit as a society to invest in the rehabilitation of prisoners. We don’t only pay for criminality with our taxes, but with our lives, our precious belongings, and our emotional stability each time perpetrators re-enter society un-rehabilitated.
There’s no doubt that private enterprise could invest in rehabilitating prisoners under corporate social initiatives. Funding isn’t the issue; it’s getting past government red tape that’s proving the most difficult challenge. It is not enough to lock people in prison. Should the system not look towards the future and do something positive to ensure that perpetrators do not become reoffenders? Not just for their sake, but for ours.
*This is Part 3 of 3 of Doing Time. Read Part 2 here, or Part 1 here