If Oscar goes to jail

By Almari Wessels
11 September 2014

If the court finds Oscar guilty of murder with intent today – which the state alleges – he could be sent to prison for life.

He's iconic proof of what disabled people can achieve. But what will life be like for Oscar Pistorius if he’s jailed for murdering his model girlfriend 'Look around you; how many disabled people do you see? That’s how it looks in prison too'? And what is life like for disabled people behind bars? It’s too early to speculate which way the law will swing but if Judge Thokozile Masipa convicts Oscar of murder with intent – which the state alleges – he could be sent to prison for life. If he’s convicted of murder that wasn’t premeditated he could be sentenced to 15 years; the sentence for culpable homicide could be imprisonment or a fine, or both. Whatever the conviction, chances are he’ll spend time behind bars. What challenges will he, as a disabled man with prosthetic legs, face in prison?

Will Oscar be allowed to take his prostheses to jail? 

The Correctional Services Act makes no special provision for the disabled but the department of correctional services (DCS) is almost fanatical in its insistence that they’re treated humanely. “If prisoners are not granted their human rights it could lead to civil claims against the state,” explains Willie Clack, a senior lecturer in correctional management at Unisa’s School of Criminal Justice.
'Look around you; how many disabled people do you see? That’s how it looks in prison too'

Samantha Taylor, an ex-girlfriend of Oscar, testified in the first week of the sensational trial that he isn’t entirely stable when he moves around on his stumps and has to hold on to things to maintain his balance. “I’ve seen wheelchairs, prosthetic legs and crutches in prisons,” Clack says. “No one is just going to remove supporting aids. “The regulations are very specific when someone with an artificial limb is sent to prison. A registered nurse has to make a note of it and it can be taken away only on a doctor’s instruction.”

But the question is, what could a prisoner do with that aid? “Crutches, for example, are hollow,” Clack says. “Can prisoners hide stuff in them? If so the authorities have to decide how to deal with the issue.”

What challenges do disabled inmates face? 

“As in our public facilities, a physically disabled individual faces challenges of accessibility,” says Jacques Sibomana of the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro). “The policies of the DCS define disability as vulnerable groups but we are not always sure what facilities are actually available for the disabled.”

A Western Cape-based prison warder with 16 years’ experience says new prisons are better equipped for the disabled but there are no prisons earmarked solely for prisoners with disabilities. Sibomana says prisoners are detained on the basis of their crimes and there’s no differentiation beyond that. “As part of the law all government facilities need to have structures in place to accommodate physically disabled individuals.”

No statistical information is available on the number of disabled prisoners in SA’s jails but Clack says prison populations reflect the wider community outside. “Look around you; how many disabled people do you see? That’s how it looks in prison too.”

Will Oscar be allowed a single cell?

Only about one per cent of prisoners are in single cells, Clack says. So it’s highly likely he’ll have to share a cell with others if he’s sent to jail.  “Some prisons have many single cells and others very few. Single cells that aren’t used to segregate or isolate prisoners are generally shared  because of overcrowding.”

Segregation or isolation is used following a disciplinary hearing or in the interests of safety if it’s determined to be better for a prisoner’s health given the individual’s state of mind. It’s never imposed for more than 30 days and the decision is made by the head of the prison.

Prisoners typically sleep on bunk beds set at three levels. “There is no accurate statistic on this but we’re sitting with facilities catering for 160 000 people instead of the designed 120 000,” Sibomana says. “Because of overcrowding some single cells meant for one or two house three inmates; communal cells have between 10 and sometimes 60 inmates.”

Will he get nutritious meals and be able to exercise? 


When Christoff Becker, one of the socalled Waterkloof Four, was released from Kgosi Mampuru prison in Pretoria – shortly before he and Frikkie du Preez were locked up again for their partying antics in their cell – many were amazed by the muscular physique the 28-year-old killer had developed in jail.
'Many prisons have gyms but being able to use them is a privilege, not a right'

Just how nutritious is jail food, they wondered. Would Oscar, an active athlete, be able to maintain his lean, lithe body if he were jailed? Former Comrades champion Nick Bester recalled after meeting Becker at a prison bodybuilding competition that Becker sometimes had to negotiate with other prisoners to buy extra food from them. Bester told Beeld newspaper prisoners were fed porridge and cabbage every day.

But DCS spokesperson Manelisi Wolela says, “The department of correctional services serves all offenders in correctional centres a balanced diet which is approved nationally by the DCS. “The approved diet . . . includes beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs and various vegetables and fruits. This is served with starch, bread with butter, jam or peanut butter.”

Many prisons have gyms but being able to use them is a privilege, not a right, Clack says. Prisoners would typically be allowed to exercise an hour a day but that varies from prison to prison, Wolela says. Some have athletics tracks and athletics meets are held in which prisoners can compete against one another.

"The DCS holds an annual athletics meet in Rustenburg where some 540 athletes from prisons around South Africa compete against one another,” he says.

Can you choose the prison you want to be sent to?

No, says Marius Coertze, the lawyer representing Clive Derby-Lewis, who murdered South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993. Derby-Lewis is serving his life sentence in Kgosi Mampuru prison. “Prisoners are at the mercy of the DCS. In effect you lose all say over your life.”

But the DCS does consider the convicted person’s support structure and family when allocating a prison, says Pretoria-based lawyer Julian Knight, although the overriding consideration is where a place is available. “You can ask to be moved to another prison because certain prisons are better equipped for your needs but the decision is in the hands of the DCS.”

An average day in prison

If imprisonment awaits Oscar, his glamorous lifestyle – the fast cars, guns and pretty women described in court – will have to make way for dinner before sunset and a strict routine that includes cell doors generally being locked by 4 pm.

Inmates have their last meal of the day around 3 pm, although the routine differs from jail to jail, Clack says. “Some jails serve only two meals – at 7 am and 3 pm. In others breakfast is provided at 7 am, lunch at 11 am and dinner at 3 pm. This allows prisoners to eat before the correctional staff ’s day shift ends and inmates are locked in before the night shift staff come on duty.”

Adapted from YOU, March 2014

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