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24 October 2014 22:21 (South Africa)
South Africa

Released into freedom's chains

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\greg prison

The final group of offenders who received a remission of sentence from President Zuma were released last week. GREG NICOLSON meets one who is struggling to adjust to life outside.

Thando, 33, lingers in the sun near the tables at a café in downtown Johannesburg. He sidles towards the lone patron after the other tables clear their bills. He bows as he greets the customer and takes certificate after certificate out of a workbook, laying the frayed pages on the table. “I’m looking for a job,” he says. 

Thando, who didn’t want his surname published, was released from Leeuwkop Prison almost two months ago. He got out early thanks to the 12-month remission of sentence for offenders who committed non-aggressive crimes, announced by President Zuma in April. 

The last of the 43,789 prisoners who qualified for remission were released last week. Of those, 17,831 offenders were released from prison while 25,338 were doing time outside prisons.

Correctional services deputy minister Ngoako Ramathlodi assured the public they were ready. “Amid fears expressed on the competence of our rehabilitation, correctional, and pre-release programmes, we are satisfied that the administration of the remission was a success,” he said.

“All offenders who benefited were exposed to a pre-release programme to prepare them for their reintegration back into society,” said Ramathlodi.

“It came as a surprise,” says Thando, presenting yet another certificate he earned in Leeukop. “I was not aware of what was going to happen. I was called by the case management coordinator. He said, ‘My brother, I can see you’ve done a lot here in prison.’”

Thando was sent to Sun City after a string of arrests. He grew up in Soweto and dropped out of school in Grade 8. He stole bicycles with his friends and whittled away time smoking drugs and chasing girls.

He visited juvenile detention, but as an adult didn’t receive jail time for his crimes until he was caught for housebreaking and theft and was sentenced to seven years.

“By the time I went to prison I was smoking. When I reached prison I quit everything.” He went to Sun City before he was transferred to Leeuwkop. “I bowed to Jesus Christ and what happened? I went to school.”

His certificates are strewn across the table like playing cards at the end of a hand. There’s recognition for passing matric, courses in business management, HIV/Aids training, tutoring other inmates, leadership within the church, and computer training.

He points proudly at the letter D next to a public administration studies listing. “I was number one in the whole of Leeuwkop,” he says. It was the only class for which he had a textbook. His pastor donated it, telling Thando to choose which subject he thought he would excel in.

“They gave me a chance to that extent. Now I tend to understand who I am in this world. To be honest, in prison they treated me so well and I managed to be rehabilitated. And now here I am outside again and, I dunno, the devil is trying to trick me.”

In prison, Thando was able to begin studying towards his eventual dream of becoming a teacher, but overcrowding and a shortage of resources hampered his education. 

The Wits Justice Project said Zuma’s announcement of remissions was clearly aimed at tackling prison overcrowding, a problem which starts at the initial stages of the justice system.

Inmates who can’t afford bail are often detained for long periods while awaiting trial, the first in a number of bottlenecks. South Africa’s 241 prisons have a capacity of 118,154 but hold 153,556 people. Of those, 45,718 are awaiting trial.

The system is overcrowded and funds are in short supply. Inmates can receive training and education, but are ill-prepared for finding work once they’re released.

During public hearings on inmate labour, privileges and social reintegration in 2010, civil society groups argued over different methods for preparing prisoners for life outside. It is crucial, they said, that ex-offenders find work. Most supported inmate labour as preparation.

The department of correctional services’ offender labour policy is ready to be rolled out, former minister of correctional services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said last year. But it’s uncertain what stage the costing of the initiative is at. 

For the prisoners released on remission, it’s too late. Having been locked up with little work experience, they enter a job market with unofficial employment tilting towards 40%. Undoubtedly, this has contributed to 90 of the prisoners released on remission being arrested only weeks after their release.

Thando was released the day after his younger sister had her first-born. She’s now dropped out of matric and supports Thando and their mother with the grant for the baby.

“I’m living in Soweto, doing washing, sitting around, doing nothing. I take my certificates, make copies and hand out my CV… I find myself with the same old friends. I’m not looking for comfortable things. But when I reached home, everything was the same. It’s still the same. And I’m not working now.”

Thando had hoped some of the church and educational groups he met in prison would help him when he was released. “They promised me that when I’d come out of prison they’d help me. Now when I come out of prison they tell me they’re busy.

“Ever since I’ve been here, I feel like now I am alone. The time I was in prison, we would eat. We had some resources, some clothes. 

“I’ll speak honestly,” he says, his body twisting. “I have relapsed because I am smoking again. I am smoking cigarettes… I was so worried.”

He leafs through his certificates, pointing out his achievements as he confesses to life on the outside.

“I don’t say outside is bad. It’s good outside, but the first time when you reach outside you have to have a person’s hands that are warm that will give you support, to make some nice things for you, to buy you clothes. When I reach at home, there’s nothing. I also have nothing,” he says.

“Now I feel like I am tired. I can see the devil is trying to speak to me and one of the pastors taught me that I have to speak against this situation because the situation speaks. Now as I am coming like this the situation says to me, ‘You can’t find a job. You see now you are tired.’ But I know I am a son of God,” says Thando, his faith being tested against the same circumstances that got him arrested.

“An idle mind is a devil’s workshop. If I just sit in the home I will be exposed to so many things that will revive my unconscious mind, so I said, ‘Let me just go speak to people and tell them my story.’”

And he does. But his qualifications are in a jumble, rather than organised in a CV. He’s only got one set of clothes, a navy sports tracksuit. And rather than apply for positions that suit his capabilities or hopes, he’s given out the few CVs he did have in a confused jumble.

Despite all the courses he attended in prison, he wasn’t taught how to put together a résumé or given tips on applying for a job. “Really?” says Thando, when told he can try a nearby unemployment agency. 

He leaves the café alone, after six years inside and two months as a free man, still looking for the key to long-lasting rehabilitation, carrying a workbook full of certificates and desperate for a job. DM

Photo by Reuters.

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa


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