Event Feature

Prisons: Part of the problem or the solution?

November 19, 2019

Having a father who had worked at Johannesburg prison, popularly known as Sun City, for over four decades, the South African Prison system is close to my heart. I have memories of multiple mothers knocking at our door to only beg my father to protect their sons from the hell that is associated with the concrete high walls laced with barbed wire and electricity. 

A hell that turns many into criminals – guards included. Masqueraded as rehabilitation centres that are here to not only keep communities safe but also reform those who have committed crimes, it fails to do either. Instead, the current prison system does the opposite with further harm. It does not offer rehabilitation and most certainly does not keep our communities safe. Prisons are punishment centres that end up hurting everyone. Punishment is not the answer and is obviously not working at all.

Incarceration Nations Network (INN) is a global network and think-tank that supports, instigates and popularises innovative prison reform efforts around the world. On the 7th of November, I was invited to the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg for the launch of INN’s first major project. Hosted by entrepreneur Maps Maponyane, it coinciding with partner events to be held in New York and London, the launch has a particular significance as 2020 will mark 30 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison and highlight our country’s unique history of incarceration, revolution and justice-driven approach to overcoming the legacies of that history.

Incarceration Nations Network Global Representatives at the INN Launch at the Nelson Mandela Foundation
Incarceration Nations Network Global Representatives at the INN Launch at the Nelson Mandela Foundation . Image supplied

Speakers from organisations such as Hlumelisa (South Africa), The Fair Justice Initiative (Ghana), RubiKon centre (Czech Republic) The POS foundation (Ghana) , Just Detention (South Africa) and Humunitas360 (Brazil) tackled topics ranging from: 

  • Pre-trial detention and legal assistance for the poor
  • Problems and solutions related to rehabilitation behind bars
  • Reintegration
  • Juvenile justice
  • Restorative justice.

“In a country and climate in which justice is such a contentious subject, in which the justice system is riddled with inadequacies, misunderstandings and corruption, having meaningful conversations about reimagining justice is paramount,” says Maponyane. “We may not always have the answers, but at least we can provide a platform for those who have suffered injustice so that their voices can be heard.”  

The project, a multimedia web platform that showcases prison reform efforts around the world, will chart new territory in the fraught area of criminal justice. It is the first bold step towards realising INN’s goal of making communities, and nations as a whole, safer through progressive prison reform and justice reimagining. 

Sello Hatang CEO at Nelson Mandela Foundation with guests at the NMF archives center. Image supplied

Officiated by Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the event was the first time global justice workers convened to explore how to create safer communities by reforming prison systems and building alternatives to them, featuring a multimedia presentation entitled Showcasing Global Visions of Justice: Past, Present and Future.

Hatang told guests, “The Foundation’s interest in incarceration systems and prison reform is obvious, given who our Founder is. For years now we have been disturbed at the role the incarceration system plays in the normalisation of the deep-rooted structural violence in society. This gives us enormous common ground with the Incarceration Nations Network. We are both committed to building safer, more robust and cohesive communities.”

“One of the topics we’ll cover in-depth is the global pre-trial detention crisis,” says Dr Dreisinger. “It’s sobering enough to consider that there are currently 11 million people behind bars around the world, but even more outrageous is that approximately 3.2 million of these are awaiting-trial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime.” 

What should also stop us in our tracks, she says, is the fact that, according to the International Task Force on Justice, 4.5 billion people – more than half of the world’s population – are excluded from the social, economic and political opportunities the law provides. An almost unbelievable 1.5 billion have a criminal, civil or justice problem they are prevented from to resolving 

“Although the term ‘mass incarceration’ is widely used to describe what’s happening in prisons from the United States to Australia, the phenomenon doesn’t impact on people equally. Marginalised communities — such as African-Americans and Latinos in the US; Indigenous people in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; Roma people throughout Europe; and poor people in the Global South — are targeted by and caught up in criminal justice systems at dramatically disproportionate levels. This is largely due to a perfect storm of historic and current realities driven by capitalist interests.” 

Dr Baz Dreisinger founder and Executive Director of INN with Solomon Akumun of the POS Foundation in Ghana. Image supplied

At the crux of INN’s programme is ongoing research which shows that the majority of people in prison do not actually pose a threat to society. A recent study conducted in the US found that a quarter of those in prison at the time could have been more effectively sentenced to non-custodial alternatives without “meaningfully threatening public safety or increasing crime”, while a further 14 per cent could be released within a year and posed “little risk to public safety”. 

INN founder and Executive Director Dr Baz Dreisinger said INN looks to reduce prison populations globally while building safer communities, by showcasing innovative work happening all around the world. The hope is that countries will learn from each other and build coalition in order to innovate around justice. This advances peace and generates a justice system that actually serves people it claims to serve: those who have been harmed.”

“Overall, prisons are an outmoded, non-innovative method of protecting public safety and reducing crime,” says Dr Dreisinger. “We at INN believe it is time to bring this issue into the international spotlight and begin a serious debate about whether our prison systems are really achieving what they say they’re intended to achieve.” 

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