Systemic Reforms to Address Sexual Abuse of Inmates Successfully Adopted

  • Emily Nagisa Keehn

Conservative estimates suggest that 26.7% of inmates in South African prisons are HIV positive, well above the national average of 10%. Rape in prison is a common experience – half of all inmates surveyed by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) confirmed that sexual abuse happens regularly. The National Strategic Plan for HIV, STIs and TB highlights inmates as a “key population” and calls on the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) to implement laws and policies to prevent and respond to sexual offences in prisons as a means to stem the spread of HIV behind bars. DCS took a critical leap forward in its effort to address sexual abuse and HIV with its recent adoption of the Policy Framework to Address Sexual Abuse of Inmates in DCS Facilities.

Sonke and its partners have played a crucial role in the policy reform process. Beginning in 2011, DCS senior officials began to work with Just Detention International (JDI) and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) to look at what could be done to address sexual violence and HIV in the prison system. It was agreed that a policy was needed. The process of drafting the policy was completed at the end of 2010. At this stage, because of the on-the-ground work that Sonke has been doing in prisons for many years, Sonke joined forces with JDI. Our work with men and boys in prisons had pointed out many deficiencies in the system. It was clear that we needed to advocate for the adoption of the policy. Initially Sonke’s work took the form of a long series of submissions to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services. Sonke also engaged with the media, putting out opinion pieces and ensuring broader public buy-in. In partnership with JDI and others, Sonke also developed a close and supportive working relationship with officials within the DCS.

Efforts bore fruit when DCS senior management began discussions with Sonke and JDI earlier this year. Sonke and JDI are pleased that at the end of March the policy was approved and has now come into effect.

The Policy Framework is an important statement to all inmates and to survivors of rape in prison that the Department acknowledges that rape is a problem, and is prepared to take action to stop it. Critically, it creates a zero tolerance standard on sexual abuse in all correctional centres – sentenced, remand and community corrections. It requires comprehensive inmate orientation and education on the zero tolerance standard and avenues to report and receive support. It also calls on training of all staff to prevent, detect, and respond to cases of sexual abuse, and to improve staffing and surveillance to protect inmates at all times.

The next step is for DCS to develop an operational plan for its nation-wide roll-out in correctional centres. Once implementation commences, the Policy Framework will be a vital tool for JDI, Sonke, and others to monitor systemic progress.

In addition to Policy Framework, we have been working closely with the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), the oversight body for prisons, to update their systems to detect, respond, and record complaints of sexual violence in DCS facilities. Since our engagement with them, JICS has officially begun to keep statistics of sexual violence complaints, which are publicised in its quarterly reports to the Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services and will be in its Annual Reports. The new sexual abuse complaints system that we co-developed will be piloted later this year in select sites before national roll-out.

Congratulations to the team at Sonke and JDI, to DCS and JICS, and to all survivors of sexual abuse in prison who have hoped and called for systemic change. These are critical first steps toward what can be the eventual elimination of most rape in South Africa’s prisons. Sonke looks forward to supporting and monitoring the implementation of these reforms to help stop rape and the spread of HIV in DCS facilities.