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The BBC programme "Cage of Dreams" screened on Special Assignment on Tuesday 22 May illustrates the extent to which violence has become an institutional culture within prisons. The prison authorities have done little more than contain the levels of violence. More creative measures need to be introduced.

Department of Correctional Services statistics indicate that 2980 assaults on prisoners, by prisoners and by warders, were recorded during 2000. This figure probably under-represents the number of actual assaults. "We know the figures are higher than this", says Gideon Morris of the Independent Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services. In just six months of 2000, 2530 complaints of assaults on prisoners, in respect of only three provinces, were reported to the Independent Prison Visitors. The true extent of assaults, rape and sexual assault is unknown, but reports by prisoners indicate that assaults are endemic in prisons. There were 73 deaths by unnatural causes recorded last year, of which perhaps a third were the result of assaults on prisoners.

The Department of Correctional Services is mandated to maintain safety and security in prisons, which means not only preventing escapes from prison, but also protecting the individuals within its high walls. While there have been substantial improvements in respect of preventing escapes, the same cannot be said of maintaining security within the prison. Security has mainly focused on containment, intervention when a crisis emerges, and attempts to prevent prisoners from keeping and using weapons. However, given that prisons are overcrowded and increasingly understaffed, the Correctional Services is clearly unable to prevent violence through this approach alone. As many as 70 inmates are housed within one cell, and the movement of prisoners between cells and betweens sections cannot be adequately monitored. And once prisoners are locked up at 3 o' clock in the afternoon, there is virtually no monitoring of activities in the cells. A range of abuses, and violent incidents take place behind these closed doors, and the consequences may only be realised once prisoners are unlocked from their cells in the morning.

Prison gangs are the primary vectors through which much of the violence is perpetrated. Gangs fill the security gaps provided by the correctional services, and through hierarchical and often violent gang structures they govern the prison.

The overt culture of gang violence creates a sense of prevailing physical insecurity. Prisoners join gangs in order to buy their own security in prison, and they may have to engage in violent acts to remain part of the gangs, and rise within the ranks. More importantly, the gangs provide a 'home' for prisoners where their need for belonging, physical security, and status can be fulfilled.

Instead of providing a safe environment in which prisoners may engage in developmental activities in preparation for release from prison, the prisoner must often adapt by immersing himself in the violent culture. The prisoner inevitably carries these lessons with him when he leaves prison, and is likely to resort to violence to resolve problems in the street as well. This is why it is important to try preventing these habits from forming in prison.

There are a number of ways to intervene in violence in prisons. By increasing staff numbers, providing specialist training on how to prevent and deal with violent incidents, and by managing conflict through greater awareness of when a crisis is likely to emerge, and developing the ability to intervene before a problem arises. Those prisoners who engage in violent acts should also be prosecuted and punished, although inevitably further imprisonment sentences fail to serve as a deterrent to hardened offenders.

However, these measures serve only to contain the violence; they are ineffective in dealing with the causes of violence because they fail to address why individuals resort to violence in their lives. Many people come to prison after a long history of involvement with violence, both as perpetrators, and often as victims. These are people who have learned to use violence as a solution to their problems, and as an expression of their frustration and anger. Many have never explored the option of living by any other means.

The programme run by the Centre for Conflict Resolution illustrates that violent men can change their attitudes, and perhaps their behaviour through a self-reflective process aimed at transforming the individual's understanding of themselves and why they engage in violence. The Area Manager of Pollsmoor prison courageously risked a venture of this sort that has so far proven effective. This risk was mirrored by the gang members in the prison who not only exposed their own vulnerabilities in the programme, but also exposed themselves to possible rejection by their own community. By engaging with the programme, the gangsters demonstrated their commitment to non-violence. Through them, other prisoners could realise the futility of violence in prison, and begin to operate is less violent ways. The control over the nature and extent of violence in this way can in this way be shifted from the prison authorities to the prisoners themselves. Gangs and other forms of violence have been significantly reduced since the advent of the intervention programme. If sustained, this intervention also has the potential to change the trajectory of prisoner's lives. They may choose to follow a life without crime when they leave prison.

More programmes of this nature need to be available in prisons throughout the country. Of course, these programmes need to be holistic and sustained over the long term. It is impossible, and not necessarily appropriate for the prisons to do this alone. This is where the services of NGOs and other members of civil society should be brought in to assist, and hopefully introduce aspects of healing into the abnormal prison environment. By bringing members of the community into prison, they may also break on the institutional culture. They have the skills and knowledge to assist prisoners in making this change.

Not all prisoners will be released from prison, but most will be. Even those who are there for very short times will be caught up in the violent culture. It is a wise policy that encourages a positive change in prisoners before they are released back onto the community.

Amanda Dissel is Manager of the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In the Sowetan, 22 May 2001.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation