Systemic reforms to address sexual abuse of inmates successfully adopted

Sexual violence and HIV are interlinked and common phenomena in South Africa’s prisons. It is a conservative estimate that 26.7% inmates 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 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.

The policy reform process began when DCS senior officials worked with Just Detention International and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation to develop a draft policy, which was completed at the end of 2010. Since then, Sonke joined the effort – a natural progression of our efforts to prevent HIV in prisons – and worked with JDI to advocate for the adoption of this policy through a long series of submissions to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services, using the media, and to the DCS.

Efforts bore fruit when DCS senior management began discussions with Sonke and JDI earlier this year, and committed to usher through this important policy. DCS delivered on this commitment when it adopted the policy at the end of March.

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 it 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.