A wish list for Dr Pieter Groenewald, the new Minister of Correctional Services

Dr Casper Lötter, a conflict criminologist affiliated with the North-West University’s (NWU) School of Philosophy, gives his wish list for what the new Minister of Correctional Services, Dr Pieter Groenewald, can do to improve the country’s correctional services system.

“It is indeed a wonderful time to be in criminology when the possibility exists that a government in the developing world is more likely to listen to alternative voices than those in the developed world. This is the opportunity presented by South Africa’s new Government of National Unity (GNU) after the May 2024 elections. Under the previous administration, unethical actions such as the BOSASA tender and supply chain scandal, the violent suppression of prison unrest (often exacerbating the serious underlying problems) and the Thabo Bester escape debacle (possibly with the help of corrupt wardens) were par for the course.

Our new GNU has the potential to usher in a dispensation of transparency and renewed confidence in the authorities. With this in mind, I have compiled a short wish list for our new Minister of Correctional Services. I offer ten items for consideration and possible implementation:

  1. It is well known that South Africa has one of the highest and most unsustainable recidivism rates in the world at around 86-94%. Compare this with Japan’s 48%, China’s 6-8% (two countries that embrace integrative shaming rather than stigmatising shaming practices) and Finland’s 31%. The United States, yet another stigmatising shaming culture, has a recidivism rate of 77%. This means that about 9 out of every 10 offenders in South Africa reoffend. In my own PhD, I looked at this problem (also known as the penologist’s stone) and I concluded that the emasculating stigma against ex-offenders is the single most important factor in why offenders are unable to reintegrate into the communities from which they were removed before their incarceration.
  2. The Australian criminologist John Braithwaite famously described stigma as “counterproductive” and “criminogenic”, in the sense that it drives ex-offenders away from mainstream society and into the arms of welcoming criminal subcultures. The government’s “criminalization and marginalization practices” (in the words of the British criminologist Eugene McLaughlin) should therefore be urgently scrutinised. The foothold that the prison-industrial complex (PIC) gained in South Africa during Zuma’s tenure is evidence of this. In addition, I have argued that:‘the stigmatisation of ex-offenders, directly, and the profit motive as it has come to be embedded in the PIC, indirectly, are important, though certainly not exclusive, drivers of South Africa’s unsustainable rates of incarceration and recidivism.’
  3. If our new Minister were to tackle just this one issue of the stigma that fuels reoffending and cements criminal careers, he would have made a huge impact on our unsustainable rates of recidivism and carved out an enduring legacy for himself. How is this to be done? By outlawing the stigmatisation of ex-offenders, including significant civil and criminal consequences for any proven act or practice of discrimination, marginalisation and/or stigmatisation. But more importantly, a massive public awareness campaign by the DCS on the dangers of stigma, in terms of crime prevention, should perhaps be highlighted in its budget planning.
  4. It is vital that the public be educated about the societal costs of stigma [in terms of recidivism rates] if we are serious about creating safer communities.
  5. No stone should be left unturned to bring the South African correctional system into the admirable position of Finland’s in terms of blunting the impact of stigma through integrative shaming measures. This is bound to have a positive impact on both socioeconomic and recidivism rates. It is worth noting that John Burton, one of the giants in the field of conflict management, has contributed significantly to the theory that meeting basic human needs (respect, dignity, employment opportunities, etc.) will prevent prolonged social conflict. Crime is one such form of prolonged social conflict.
  6. Expanding on the previous point, prison personnel should be made aware that most offenders already come from marginalised and disadvantaged communities, and therefore already face developmental trajectory challenges. Fair, decent and respectful treatment of the offenders in their care is of the utmost importance.
  7. Recent research has shown that incarceration is a serious public health crisis, affecting close family members with depression and other chronic diseases. Accordingly, every effort must be made to replace incarceration, which is currently the dominant sentencing regime of South Africa’s stigmatising shaming culture, with African punishment options such as community service. Incarceration has a long and ugly colonial history in the developing world, which is why many African countries have banned these practices in favour of communitarian (community-based) sentencing options.
  8. However, while the prison is still part of our social and political landscape, I argue that its violent, criminogenic environment should not be taken for granted. It is possible to transform the DCS from an institution that propagates negative peace (in the form of the mere absence of crime) to one that advocates for positive peace (in the sense of achieving peace by peaceful means).
  9. One way of doing this quite effectively is to apply a conflict transformation, or at least conflict management, perspective to conflict in South African prisons. The DCS has a long tradition of using lethal force to resolve conflict or riots in prisons, whereas there are more effective and enduring ways of resolving (often legitimate) grievances.
  10. Finally, ex-offenders must be provided with employment opportunities, otherwise all our efforts will be tantamount to barking at the moon, unless we agree with Pat Carlen (former editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Criminology) that the rehabilitation paradigm is redundant because we are unable or unwilling to effect fundamental social change. One such fundamental challenge in the South African context is the obscene level of income and ownership inequality, which is a major driver of violent crime. On the issue of employment, international experience across the shaming spectrum (from China to the United States) has shown that ex-offenders make for high-performing prison wardens and can also provide excellent guidance and mentoring to those in their charge.

Implementing at least some of the above proposals is bound to have a significant impact on the management of crime in South Africa. One can only hope that the recent changing of the guard will lead to a paradigm shift in which public safety is prioritised through meaningful sentencing.”


Dr Casper Lötter

Submitted on Wed, 07/10/2024 - 14:28