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The future for 19,000 released prisoners

On 8 May, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola announced that 19 000 low-risk inmates will receive early parole in efforts to decongest prisons during the COVID-19 outbreak. Mike Batley welcomes the decision but warns that released prisoners will require close accompaniment from the public sector and civil society to reintegrate them into their communities, especially during the current economic slump.

Recently a number of organisations under the banner of The Detention Justice Forum sent an open letter to the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services regarding the decision to release 19000 inmates. The full text of the letter can be found here.

The response of the public to the Minister’s decision was well captured by Zapiro. In view of this understandable cynicism, it is instructive to consider the context in which the Minister took his decision.

An article by Lukas Muntingh points out the enormous impact of overcrowding, especially in communal cells and the risks this poses for the spread of the virus. The situation is made worse by the reduced amount of outside exercise inmates are allowed and the fact that no external visits are allowed. Most worrying is the lack of oversight that is usually provided by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services.

These realities are echoed by the current Inspecting Judge of Prisons, Edwin Cameron, in a News 24 article. He calls for oversight visits by the independent prison visitors of the Inspectorate to be reinstated. He points out that

Correctional centres are communities that exist on our peripheries. And yet, those inside are not peripheral.  They are not outsiders. And they do not live outside our society. They remain part of our community. Traffic in and out of our prisons continues daily.  We like to think we can lock people up and “throw away the key”. But we cannot.

Edwin cameron

Assisting paroled prisoners

It is in the light of these realties that organisations applauded the decision of the Minister to release 19,000 inmates on parole, for re-affirming government’s commitment to restorative justice and emphasizing that both victims and offenders need assistance.

The letter pointed out that the context into which these inmates will be released is an even harsher one than usual, and that these people may well be experienced by their families and communities as adding to the burden of survival. These unusually adverse socio-economic conditions together with the marginalisation and stigmatisation ex-offenders typically experience after release, increases their risk of re-offending. 

These inmates will be released is an even harsher one than usual, and that these people may well be experienced by their families and communities as adding to the burden of survival.

As restorative justice has been shown to reduce the risk of re-offending, the letter expressed concern at the current lack of support for restorative justice and called on the Minister to renew this, including by increasing access to funds from the National Lotteries Commission.

A premise of all the world’s major faiths is the concept of love, care and the desire to help. At this time of national disaster, faith communities often play a crucial role in providing food and other support to those around them. They would do well to draw on the resources of organisations who focus on supporting those released from prison. Some useful resources that can be leveraged include:

The release of 19,000 inmates does not need to become a sentence of a different kind for those who are paroled or their families, particularly as they have little chance of finding dignified work at this time. If we heed Cameron’s statement that prisoners — before and after release — are part of the community, then their well-being is our collective responsibility.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.