Is it worth sending Oscar to jail?

Shutterstock: Prison bars
Shutterstock: Prison bars

If Judge Masipa finds Oscar Pistorius guilty of murder in the Pretoria High Court tomorrow, the paralympian will most likely find himself facing the prospect of a lengthy stretch behind bars.

If this is the case, the questions of how long and where will be decided according to what precisely Oscar is found guilty of. A sentence of over 20 years is distinctly possible.

However, the past few years have seen increased criticism of incarceration across the world, with many questioning the effects life in prison has on inmates. In particular, there are serious questions about the efficacy of the rehabilitation aspects of incarceration.

There are several reasons people go to jail. One is to keep them away from the public where they could continue to cause trouble, two is to punish them for the crimes they have committed and deter others from repeating them  and the third is to rehabilitate them for when they are eventually released.

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The case for rehabilitation is thrust into harsh criticism by the fact that up to 94% of inmates will return to jail after their release. This rate of recidivism was reported by the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders in their 2014 report into the state of South African Prisons.

Even conservative estimates suggest that just 2 out of 10 inmates will avoid jail after their release, highlighting the failing of South Africa’s correctional services.

Why is this rate so high? The answer lies both inside and outside of our prisons. South Africa has a very high crime rate, meaning it’s very easy for individuals to get stuck in a “cycle of crime.” However, some argue that effective rehabilitation programs can help criminals to break these cycles and start anew after leaving jail, especially inmates who acquire skills and qualifications while incarcerated.

But how does this apply to Oscar? Few people would suggest that, were he to be found not guilty, Oscar would be likely to shoot someone again.

The answer may in fact be that Oscar would come out of jail in worse shape than when he went in. South African prisons are widely regarded as dangerous, inhospitable locations where crime and drug use is rife. Much of this comes down to the well-documented activities of the “Numbers” gang who are said to largely control the “politics” within the South African prison system.

Overcrowding is a serious problem, with the national average standing at 133% overpopulation, rising as high as 200% in some institutions. Few cells actually contain the number of people they were designed for, many contain double that number.

Health is a severe concern for South Africa’s prison population. Leading TB expert Robin Wood conducted a study which showed that the risk of TB transmission in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor prison stood at a whopping 90%, largely as a result of the aforementioned overcrowding.

Read: Possible outcomes of the Oscar Trial

HIV is a further health issue, one that is further compounded by the high incidences of sexual violence in prisons. While the official Department of Justice Annual Report for 2010 to 2011 claimed that 56 inmates reported being raped during the period, this number stands in sharp contrast to independent and anecdotal evidence on the subject.

There were also 47 unnatural deaths reported for the period, 12 of which were due to murder. Suicide is the main cause of unnatural deaths in prison. The concern of Oscar being a suicide risk was raised during the trial.

Statistics for those who died natural deaths were not presented in the report. 5 284 inmates officially reported being assaulted, according to the report. Again, it is impossible to determine how many were assaulted but chose not to report this to the prison authorities.

In June 2014, City Press published the content of 300 text messages sent to them by an inmate at Leeuhof Prison. The messages painted a picture in complete contrast to the claims made by the official reports, including multiple occurrences of rape and violence as well as the omnipresence of drugs, especially mandrax. Most of this was done with the full knowledge, and often assistance, of the guards.

All of this builds an image of a situation that is clearly not suitable to creating individuals who are better suited to society upon their release. Instead, the mental toll of surviving in this micro-society is such that many inmates are far less capable of readapting to the outside world upon their release, hence their return to crime and, subsequently, jail.

As a point of comparison, consider prisons in Norway, a country that is admittedly vastly different from South Africa. Cells in a maximum-security jail holding murderers and rapists are equipped with televisions, computers and en-suite bathrooms. The result: a recidivism rate of 30%, the lowest in Europe, reports the Guardian. Academics believe that much of this is related to the intensive education and qualification programmes offered by these institutions.

It is a difficult concept to reconcile. People who have treated others so poorly, even killed them, being offered facilities that are so accommodating. Overwhelmingly, people feel that prison is there essentially to punish those who have done wrong. This, it is argued by opponents, leaves little concern for what the system produces, which is people who, when released, are even more likely to commit crimes, perhaps worse ones than those they were originally convicted for.

However, a large-scale alternative in South Africa is not forthcoming, and with nearly 200 000 people behind bars, any changes to the South African prison system are likely to take time.

Read more:

Nel brands Oscar deceitful
Pistorius has no mental defects 
Why was Oscar vomiting?

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