Sentenced twice over
years after the demise of apartheid, Vincent, a young, fresh-faced man
arrived in remand detention in a Western Cape facility.
Vincent had never been to prison before, and when he arrived he was
thrown into an overcrowded cell that held first-time inmates and
long-standing gang members. He was scared to death and, sadly, his fears
were confirmed: on his first night, he was raped – by two different
rape is crime that reaches beyond the prison walls when survivors are
released back to the community carrying their trauma and sexually
transmitted diseases. Picture: Karen Sandison. Credit: Independent Media
third rape was averted only because another gang member intervened to
stop it – and was beaten as a result. Vincent’s horrible first night
resembled many others to come during his incarceration.
Unlike many survivors who, understandably, choose to keep quiet about their assault, Vincent dared to ask for help.
He reached out to nurses, wardens, priests, social workers, and even magistrates – but they all refused to help him.
did not get the support he needed and it would take him three years to
get proper medical treatment. It was only then that he learnt that he
had contracted HIV.
Rape in prison is a global human rights and public health crisis, with devastating consequences for its victims.
Whether committed in the home, in the community, or in prison, rape
causes serious emotional and physical harm. In the aftermath of his
assault, Vincent felt fear, shame, anger, anxiety and depression. He
also experienced nightmares – all reactions which are common among
While anyone can be raped in prison, some people are targeted more often than others.
Inmates who are gay, bisexual, and transgender are viewed as
“unmanly”. This includes the young, small, timid, and those with
disabilities. First-time prisoners are extremely vulnerable to this
Prisoner rape is a crime which affects more than just the individuals
who have experienced it; this abuse reaches beyond prison walls when
survivors are released back into the community, carrying their trauma,
and their diseases, with them.
Even prisoners who are not subjected to rape are forced to adapt to a
culture that endorses toxic notions of gender and sexuality.
These notions, together with trauma and disease, are fed back into communities when prisoners are released.
It is crucial that we all work to address a problem which clearly
affects us all. Contrary to popular belief, rape is not an inevitable
part of prison life. It is preventable.
Facilities with committed leaders and staff, good policies, and sound practices can keep people safe and support survivors.
But although rape in detention is a global crisis, depressingly few countries are taking steps to address it.
Fortunately, South Africa is an exception. In a major victory for
prisoners’ rights, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS)
approved the Policy to Address Sexual Abuse of Inmates in DCS Facilities
(Sexual Abuse Policy).
Released in 2013, this policy gives DCS officials the tools to
prevent, detect, respond to, and document the sexual abuse of inmates.
DCS, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, and
Just Detention International – South Africa were instrumental in the
development of the Sexual Abuse Policy, and it has the potential to make
a real difference in the fight against abuse and HIV in our prisons.
The policy’s signature features include life-saving reforms that Just
Detention International – South Africa has championed for years, such
as distribution of condoms and lubricants to inmates; the provision of
holistic crisis services for survivors, including Post Exposure
Prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV prevention; rigorous training of DCS
officials; prisoner education on the right to be safe; screening of
inmates for risk factors; and increased protections for lesbian, gay,
bisexual, and transgender people and other vulnerable inmates.
It is encouraging that DCS has begun taking some of these steps, like
the distribution of condoms and lubricants. In collaboration with Just
Detention International – South Africa, the DCS trains officials at
Leeukwop, a Johannesburg prison, on inmate safety and conducts risk
assessments of inmates on their point of arrival at the facility.
But more needs to be done, through a holistic, consistent, and
co-ordinated approach between DCS, oversight bodies and other civil
society organisations, before the Sexual Abuse Policy will lead to
systemic changes that are needed to make our prisons safer.
Even though Vincent continues to struggle with painful emotions, his
courage and determination are remarkable: he persists in taking strides
to rebuild and heal his life, and in trying to prevent what happened to
him, from happening to others.
* Prince Nare is a senior programme officer at Just Detention
International – South Africa, a health and human rights organisation
that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.