Society must help to stop repeat offenders

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cape Town - A high rate of repeat offenders in South African prisons posed a major challenge not only for the Department of Correctional Services, but for all of society, said Minister of Correctional Services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

Speaking to the media shortly before her Budget Vote on Tuesday, the minister said the department could take responsibility for programmes offered in correctional facilities but the real challenge was for society to help stop repeat offenders.

"We can't blame any one entity for repeat offenders. We all need to look at how we can stop this. I visited Pollsmoor yesterday where I met with 30 young girls aged between 16 and 20. About 90 percent of these young women were repeat offenders," she said.

"How does one get an 18-year-old in prison who has been there twice before already? How do we have a 16-year-old girl who is an armed robber? Or another who knows how to commit credit-card fraud. Many are influenced by their gangster boyfriends.

"There is a lot of pain. You talk to them and ask them about their lives. Most come from dysfunctional families and communities," the minister said.

She said many don't have mothers or don't know where their fathers are, while some are brought up by relatives.

"When they leave prison, it is hard for them to re-integrate into society. It feels like their family is the one they have in prison, so they return to prison," she said.

Social integration is a challenge for society more so than for correctional services. Society needs to stop stigmatising people who have spent time in prison and give them a chance to use the skills they learnt in prison programmes.

The crux of the matter is the attitude of society, the minister said, adding that when the offenders are out of prison they have nothing to look forward to. "Many don't have a family. We need to drop the stigma."

The minister said that when offenders leave prison they must be accommodated by society and be helped to stay away from crime and away from prison.

Government was also looking at introducing a one fingerprint database so that it would be easier, among other things, to identify repeat offenders.

Overcrowding and HIV/AIDS continued to be issues the department struggled with. Of the 115 753 sentenced offenders over 19 000 were HIV-positive.

Many also suffered from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure, she said, adding that health care in prisons had to be seen as part of the nation's health care.

On overcrowding, the minister said the number of awaiting trial detainees (ATDs) continued to increase as 77 percent of ATDs did not have bail.

Also there were more offenders serving more than 10 years in prison. "We are looking at various ways to bring down overcrowding particularly as pertains to ATD," she said.