Treating inmates with respect

2011-03-04 00:00

A BRIEF spell in prison in 1997 and then a newspaper advert almost 10 years later has turned a Pietermaritzburg resident into a man with a mission.

Alan Werner (40) of Willowgardens talks about his work with all the passion and commitment of a missionary. A longtime community activist, he is an independent correctional centre visitor (ICCV) for the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (see box). “I spent some time as an awaiting-trial prisoner on a charge of self- defence after a family altercation. The charges were withdrawn, but the experience had a profound impact on me. People on the outside do not understand what prison is like. It’s tough, and people need to know that, especially young people. If they knew what it’s like inside, they would think more than twice about committing a crime,” he said.

The Judicial Inspectorate appoints ICCVs on three-year fixed-term contracts to do a certain number of hours’ work a month. Werner is one of seven visitors in Pietermaritzburg who visit the city’s two prisons: Pietermaritzburg Correctional Centre or Medium A prison and Medium B prison. ICCVs are drawn from communities surrounding correctional facilities, particularly faith and community-based and non-profit organisations.

“I am contracted to do 67 hours’ work a month visiting the prisons to inspect them, hear the inmates’ complaints, discuss these with the prison head and report back to the Inspectorate via a supervisor and the local visitors’ committee. People often ask why I bother because there are so many prisoners with so many problems. Sometimes I do feel overwhelmed by the task, and all the associated social problems, but I work on the starfish principle. I cannot solve all the problems and help all the prisoners all the time, but I can try to make a difference to some of them. That makes it worthwhile and important work.

“I try always to treat inmates with respect, which is something they crave. There is no need to remind them that they are offenders who have committed crimes, they are serving their punishment. I specially have a heart for the kids in juvenile prison as they really need help. They have no idea what is waiting for them in prison. The overcrowding is bad, sometimes there are 58 people in a room meant for 19 beds, the food is not great and there’s not enough sometimes, and there’s not much to do. Youngsters are almost forced to join a gang for protection and survival. The gangs function on strict discipline with a rank structure that gives inmates status and a sense of identity. Your gang becomes your family. A system of patronage functions in return for protection. So for example, if an inmate’s family brings him a food parcel, he has to give it to the gang leader. He may get something small from it, but he may not keep it for himself, he has to hand it over. I am amazed by how easily boys are convinced to submit to the authority of a complete stranger in prison — the gang leader — and take instructions, whether good or bad, from him.

“Often the young men come from homes where there is no father. They have no male role model in their lives, so the gang leader becomes like a father figure. I think the men of our communities have a lot to answer for because they are failing in their responsibilities as fathers and husbands. During my talks with awaiting-trial and sentenced minors the most common thing lacking in their lives is a father. They often tell me how their fathers have turned their backs on them. Inmates often ask for materials to make Mothers’ Day cards, but never Fathers’ Day cards. I often see mothers visiting and bringing food for their sons, but where are the fathers? The juveniles I talk to want to see more fathers visiting.

“Perhaps the hardest thing about going to prison is when you get out. Families and communities often ostracise released offenders and don’t want them back. Having a criminal record makes it hard to get work. Sometimes they deliberately commit another crime in order to go back to prison where they have an identity and a sense of belonging.”

Werner is filled with zeal to spread the word about prisons and prison visitors. “No one can say they will never be in prison or have a family member in prison. There are all kinds of people in prison, including judges, doctors, pastors, lawyers and teachers. I want to let young people know what prison is like as a warning against crime. I want to tell them ‘Hey, prison is a place where you don’t want to go. Believe me, you don’t want to go there.’ If they have some idea of the harsh conditions, they are less likely to do crime.”

Werner is keen to talk to any interested groups about the need to welcome released offenders back into their communities and help them to be reintegrated into life outside prison. “I want to tell communities to embrace them. Forgive them and welcome them back. They have served their time for their crimes, they have been rehabilitated through the programmes they did in prison.” He is also available to talk to families of people serving sentences in the local prisons.

“I want to challenge men to step up and play their part in families and communities. I want to tell fathers how easy it is to lose their sons. Remember how you took your son to school for his first day? He cried, maybe you cried, but now he cries alone. The juveniles in prison need their fathers or some other male relative they can respect and emulate. I would like to see more fathers from our communities visiting our overcrowded prisons. Maybe then there will be Fathers’ Day cards sent from prison too.”

 

• Contact: Alan Werner at 084 876 1993.

SOUTH Africa’s prisons are seriously overcrowded and prisoners have to cope with restricted living space, poor sanitation, disease, insufficient and sometimes unsatisfactory food, and inadequate health care. They are contexts ripe for tension, violence and human-rights abuses, hence the establishment of the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Centres (JICC) in 1998. It is an independent watchdog body set up to monitor the treatment of prisoners and oversee prison conditions. It is headed by an inspecting judge, currently Judge Deon van Zyl, assisted by inspectors, administrative staff and independent correctional centre visitors (ICCVs). According to the legislation, the JICC’s task is to “inspect or arrange for the inspection of correctional centres in order to report on the treatment of prisoners in correctional centres and on conditions ...”

The main role of ICCVs is to deal with prisoners’ complaints by conducting regular site visits, interviewing prisoners, recording complaints and monitoring the way they are dealt with, following up and giving prisoners feedback; and discussing complaints with the head of the centre or other relevant official in order to resolve the issues internally. They report unresolved complaints to their local visitors’ committee or refer urgent complaints to Van Zyl.

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