Inmates’ rights & sexual abuse in South Africa’s prisons

Sonke Gender Justice

Sexual violence is one of the most pressing issues plaguing South African prisons. In a 2007 survey by the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services, about half of all inmates admitted that sexual abuse occurs either “sometimes,” “often” or “very often.” While male inmates might be branded as perpetrators upon arrival to prison, it is alarmingly common for detainees to end their sentences as victims.

Stigma fuels male rape

Nevertheless, sexual violence in prisons remains an invisible issue to today’s society. The stigma of rape, when perpetrated against men and boys, contributes to making sexual abuse in prisons a taboo subject. And with high crime rates, society has little sympathy for offenders, often accepting sexual abuse as part and parcel of the prison sentence. Even though sexual abuse occurs most often between male inmates, the power structures underlying prison rape reinforce traditional gender norms and negative ideas of masculinity. Within these relations, one inmate assumes a dominant role and emasculates and feminises his victim through rape. Wanting to regain a sense of manhood, victims then feel justified committing further acts of sexual abuse, feeding into a cycle of violence.

This kind of abuse is a clear violation of human rights, as well as the protection granted to inmates under South Africa’s Bill of Rights, which states that “everyone who is detained, including every sentenced prisoner, has the right to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity…” Since HIV is highly prevalent in detention facilities, high levels of sexual abuse has disastrous health implications, dangerously allowing for the spread of the virus inside as well as outside prison walls upon inmates’ release. Recognising the injustice of this situation, Sonke is working to ensure that sentences do not continue to include threats to prisoners’ health and sexual integrity.

Sonke supports inmates, trains prison officials, engages politicians

Sonke’s work in prisons began as an extension of its broader efforts to mobilize men and boys against gender-based violence in South Africa. Using its One Man Can and Brothers for Life programmes, the teams offer intensive training sessions that provide health education and promote health-seeking behaviors among inmates. The trainings encourage participants, who become peer educators upon completion of the course, to acts as leaders within correctional facilities.

Peer educators are tasked with establishing supportive communities and engaging others in dialogue on critical issues related to their own health, such as HIV, AIDS and TB. To assist detainees in upholding these commitments, Sonke aids in organizing regular “Wellness Days”, where team members distribute condoms and lubricant and urge inmates to take advantage of the free health services available to them. In 2011, Sonke began a partnership with Just Detention International, an American NGO of technical experts advocating against sexual abuse in prisons, and expanded its focus, and began to offer specialised trainings on recognizing and preventing sexual abuse to prison staff members.

Recently, Sonke’s work in correctional centres has taken a new direction. In October 2011, the project shifted from attempting to engage not just inmates and prison workers, but politicians as well. Since then, Sonke has authored numerous submissions to Parliament, the most recent of which advocated for the effective use of closed circuit camera monitoring in detention centers. Beyond these efforts, Sonke members have appeared on numerous radio shows to sensitise listeners and address stigma associated with inmates. Along with partner organizations, Sonke spoke out publicly against Head of Public Diplomacy Clayson Monyela’s statement on Twitter, in which he “prayed” for rape offenders to meet “like-minded monsters” in prison. In 2012, Sonke further rallied support for its cause and helped form the Detention Justice Forum, a coalition of social and health organizations working together to advocate for inmate health and rights.

Accordingly, Sonke’s use of interventions at both the personal and the policy level has generated a new set of potential challenges. “There’s an inherent tension. It’s always hard to work with an organization while being critical of its policies,” says specialist Emily Keehn, who leads Sonke’s team in Cape Town. Sonke relies on “transparent advocacy” in its efforts to hold DCS accountable, keeping conversations straightforward and honest. “We want them to know what we’re doing, and we want to support DCS to increase its accountability to its mandate because as civil society advocates, we share with DCS the end goal of creating safer prisons,” says Keehn.

A long, long, long road

Looking forward, Sonke has multiple goals for its future work in prisons. Keehn sees a “long, long, long” road ahead for the fight to end sexual violence in correctional facilities. “As a civil society we are just at the beginning of our struggle,” she says. Still, there are “benchmark” goals that the teams have set for themselves. In particular, Sonke is planning to spearhead a research project to explore the problem of alleged staff shortages within the DCS, despite maintaining a fairly high staff-to-inmate ratio (1:4). The prison teams are further hoping to boost their community mobilisation efforts to sensitise South African citizens to the challenges inmates face during incarceration and when trying to reintegrate into their home communities. The team is also brainstorming other ways for Sonke to assist former inmates. Through support groups, the prison teams hope to create spaces for peer educators who worked with Sonke inside prisons to help one another after release. Sonke also seeks to engage ex-offenders’ voices in its advocacy work – Keehn believes that “there is no one more powerful to advocate publicly on prisons issues than someone who has experienced the system first-hand.”
Despite a growing workload, Sonke’s prison teams remain positive. “It is an exciting time,” Keehn remarks. “Civil society seems galvanised and Sonke has a great team working on these issues.” The potential for change is high, and Sonke is committed to overcoming the challenges that lie ahead.