The life of children behind bars in SA

2012-05-26 16:57

Families rarely visit, there is no schooling and kids spend 70 days awaiting trial

South Africa’s prisons are harsh, lonely places for the hundreds of children doing time.

Their families rarely visit and, in some cases, they no longer have the right number to call home.

They don’t go to school and, some say, they don’t believe being behind bars rehabilitates them at all.

In a new report by the Civil Society Prisons Reform Initiative, it emerged that children spend on average of 70 days awaiting trial in prisons.

In some cases, though, under-18s can spend up to two years in prison while waiting for their trial to start.

The report was compiled by Lukas Muntingh and Clare Ballard. It is to be released tomorrow.

“It may indeed be argued that, when stretched out over such a long period, it is more than likely that a child will lose interest and feel more the victim than the offender,” the authors said in their report.

During this time, the children miss out on schooling. Some of them join gangs to keep safe and to protect themselves from older inmates who steal their clothes and shoes.

Children come into contact with older inmates in some prisons with insufficient facilities, or when they are transported to court.

In 2008, a 15-year-old boy was put in a cell with adult criminals at Durban-Westville Prison and was repeatedly raped.

He was in custody after stealing a pair of pants worth R49 from Woolworths.

Children generally reported good treatment from warders, although one said he was hit “once with an iron pipe” by a warder.

But he didn’t lay a charge because he was in the wrong.

“We were running around in the cell late at night and they told us to keep quiet,” he told the authors of the report, adding that he and others were “playing”.

In 85% of the prisons and detention centres surveyed, staff working in the unsentenced children’s section had not been trained to work with children, Muntingh and Ballard found.

In the sentenced children’s section, this figure was 83%.

In 70% of centres, staff had not received training on suicide prevention, conflict resolution or child protection.

The good news is that the number of children in prison has decreased significantly – from more than 4 000 in 2003 to about 500 last year.

Some concerns were raised about the legal support children received – only 43% were assessed by a probation officer, although according to law all children arrested must be assessed.

Many children said they had limited access to lawyers and often only saw them at court when their cases were about to be called.

Some said they were confused and didn’t have the processes explained to them.

Many children lose touch with their families while in prison and some no longer even have their home phone numbers.

At Brandvlei prison, 65% of children had not received any visits from their families in the past three months, while in Johannesburg this figure was 75% and in Rustenburg 50%.

A 17-year-old identified as Gavin, in Worcester’s Brandvlei prison, told researchers: “My family say they will come, but they never do.

“They also don’t pay money on my property (inmate’s account). I depend on my tjommie to give me a phone card.”

Access to sport and recreational activities is also limited to between seven and 14 hours a week, which means one to two hours a day, and is often determined by how many officials are on duty.

Children often get bored. Sam (16) told researchers: “I have lots of time to think because nothing happens in my section – no programmes, no school.

“So I feel ready to leave here now, but I don’t feel like I am being rehabilitated here in prison. I don’t do anything.”

Simba (17) disagreed: “Even though I don’t like it here, there is lots of time to think about things and my family. It makes me want to go home and behave better this time.”

Click here to read the full report.

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