Cape Town - Deputy Minister of Correctional Services Hlengiwe Mkhize has called on church groups and faith-based organisations to speak out on prison abuses when visiting correctional services facilities.
Mkhize said the department wanted the church and other faith-based organisations to take a strong stand when deaths in correctional centres were reported and when offenders were deprived of rights and privileges such as parole.
"We would benefit more from scrutiny from all our partners, including the church, as they have access to inmates," said Mkhize, emphasising the close relationship that detainees often developed with those from faith-based organisations.
The deputy minister was speaking at the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care Africa Regional Conference, on Monday.
Mkhize said the department was also looking at the possibility of hosting open days at prisons to boost the participation faith-based organisations in correctional facilities, as support from faith-based organisations was often too reliant on the work of individual priests or pastors at certain times.
She said the department would also need to engage more with faith groups in getting them to understand the aims of the White Paper on Corrections.
Approved by Cabinet in 2004, the White Paper aligns the focus of prison sentences on the rehabilitation and reintegration of detainees into society.
Mkhize said faith-based organisations can play an important role in this regard: "Pastoral care does not only link with aspects of rehabilitation and reintegration. It goes beyond that. It sits at the very heart of correcting offending behaviour."
She said during the post-release phase through pastoral care, the church can reinforce social reintegration efforts of governments by helping to find suitable occupations or jobs for ex-offenders. Faith communities can also provide support to victims of offenders, the deputy minister said.
Figures provided by a report by the department entitled, "Prison pastoral care: The role of the state religious sector and society - challenges and successes," revealed that spiritual workers and volunteers held 168 784 sessions in the last financial year.
In all 24 480 or 15 percent of inmates were involved in spiritual care and programmes. Spiritual care providers rendered 23 programmes in the last financial year.
There are currently 41 chaplains and 2 164 spiritual workers of more across more than 70 faiths that minister to those behind bars.
In the report the department's director of spiritual care, Hennie Human, said overcrowding - presently at over 142 percent according to the department - often placed pressure on the effective presentation of programmes and services. Added to these facilities in prisons were not always conducive to the spiritual care needs of inmates.
Spiritual care programmes also needed to be expanded to rural areas, he said.
Human said structures and support systems in religious communities needed to be developed that would support released offenders with reintegration back into society.
Speaking at the conference, the Inspecting Judge of Prisons, Judge Deon van Zyl, said the church could also help to educate the community who often saw prisoners as no more than "scum".
van Zyl said faith workers based at prisons could report incidents to his office if they felt unsure about informing the department directly.