Sonke and Just Detention International launch training guide on sexual violence in prisons

On August 22, 2012, about fifty people – activists, researchers, Department of Correctional Services and Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services officials – gathered to celebrate the launch of a new training guide written in partnership by Sonke and Just Detention International (JDI).

While there are many programmes that focus on improving the lives of inmates, work directed at combating sexual abuse behind bars is scant. It is still highly taboo to acknowledge that men have sex with one another – some would rather pretend it did not exist. However, evidence shows that sexual abuse in South Africa’s correctional centres is rife.

Abuse and violence are cyclical – most men who find themselves convicted and imprisoned were victims of violence long before they were perpetrators. In the same way, sexual violence does not begin and end in detention but is one of the most toxic links in a chain of violence in an offender’s life. Healing from the trauma of sexual abuse is painful, difficult and takes time, and love, patience and support. Many ex-inmates who leave correctional centres do not have the luxury of these in their lives. Prevention is better than cure.

With this in mind and more, Sonke Gender Justice, with its experience training inmate and officials as peer educators for HIV prevention in correctional centres, and Just Detention International, with its expertise on addressing prisoner rape, collaborated on a training guide to help prison officials detect and prevent sexual abuse and HIV in correctional facilities.

Cherith Sanger, manager of the Policy Advocacy and Research Unit at Sonke was MC for the event. She introduced Sasha Gear, JDI’s Programme Director, who discussed the work of Just Detention International, and the partnership it has with Sonke.

Next up was Arina Smit from NICRO, an organisation established in 1910 as the Prisoner’s Aid Association, with a rich history in human rights, prison and criminal justice reform. She discussed the difficulty of recovering from the trauma of experiencing and witnessing abuse and violence, and connected the dots between violence inside and outside prisons. Smit went into more depth talking about a particular case. A boy, aged 12, arrested for a non-violent crime, was first sexually violated in a police holding cell. At 17 he was incarcerated, and remained behind bars until aged 32, witnessing and experiencing the many facets of sexual violence and intimidation in prison. Today he is a deeply troubled person, unable to hold down a job, paranoid, defensive and violent himself. He is in intensive psychotherapy and is battling the ‘voices of sexual abuse’ that tell victims that their experiences were somehow their fault.

Arina’s words struck a chord with the audience, and she called urgently for more trained mental health professionals in prisons.

Perhaps the highlight of the event was the discussion between two ex-inmates about their views on sexual violence in correctional centres and their opinions on what is needed to reduce violence and provide support to victims. They talked about the problematic lock-up procedure, where inmates are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day with minimal supervision. It is during lock up that most violence takes place between inmates. They praised the initiative to install CCTV cameras to help prevent and investigate violence in correctional centres.

The floor opened to the audience for questions and a representative from the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services – the statutory oversight body for the Department of Correctional Services – responded to a question asking why the lock-up practice still happens. He answered by describing the delicate situation of the relationship between the Inspectorate and the Department of Correctional Services. The Inspectorate is a watchdog body, and as such must both criticise and assist the Department in their operations, a fine balance to maintain. He despaired of the culture of silence surrounding prison rape, and agreed that the training guide is a step in the right direction. Once people are free enough to talk about it, victims can report cases and evidence can be gathered (about the dangers of lock-up procedures, e.g) to make a case for ending harmful practices in prisons, but without evidence, nothing can be changed.

It was encouraging to see so many people interested and concerned about inmates’ welfare in a country where the phrase ‘I hope he rots in jail’ can be heard on a regular basis. Sexual abuse is often accepted as an inevitable part of the punishment, but it is without doubt that rape behind bars can be prevented. Sonke and JDI believe that offenders’ right to be free from violence is essential not only to them as a basic human right, but also essential to stopping the cycle of violence that rages in our communities outside correctional centre walls.

A huge thank you goes to Emily Keehn for organising the launch, and for the Sonke prisons team for their hard work.