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A primer on how to over-punish prisoners

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
October 10th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Being arrested in South Africa can get you death, even though you haven't committed any crime and the country has no death penalty. The culprit is the overcrowded prison system, with those awaiting trial, petty criminals and mass murderers all spending time with one another, sharing diseases.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA (Catholic Online) - Tuberculosis is the most common disease making the rounds in the overcrowded cells of South Africa's prisons. Those who contract the disease receive very little medical care and are often debilitated for life, or die. 

Ultimately, going to a South African prison is an experience of over punishment, above and beyond what should be in an industrialized nation. 

South Africa has one of the highest incarceration rates on the continent, mainly because it locks up everyone convicted of even minor offenses, and some people can wait five to ten years before being brought to trial. 

The prisons are so bad, that even juvenile facilities have started to house adult inmates, up to 30 years old. 

Within the prisons, disease pairs with brutality to create further problems. Prison rapes are frequent, and victims do not have access to psychologists and there are few doctors that can help. 

These conditions have led some former prisoners to speak out and even to sue the national Minister of Correctional Services.

Several flaws in the system have been uncovered beyond the overcrowding. According to the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, "Crowding, long lock-up times up to 23 hours per day and inadequate ventilation result in prisoners re-breathing contaminated air for prolonged periods of time."

Prisoners are also supposed to be screened when they enter the system and quarantined if they are infected with disease. This has not been happening. 

Meanwhile, the prisons are being run by gangs. 

Although most of the men serving time in South African prisons have committed crimes and are there to serve punishment, that punishment should not include unacceptably inhumane conditions. There is a difference between just detention and the infliction of rape, disease, violence and death beyond the sentence imposed by the law. Worse, even innocent people who must be exposed to the environment while awaiting trial, suffer just the same. 

This cannot be tolerated. 

For now, the nation's courts must decide if the prisons are being unacceptably run and are in need
of reform. While this seems obvious, nothing is obvious when it comes to the law in South Africa. We can only pray for justice and that the prisons there are reformed in such a way as to reform wrongdoers rather than brutalize them and make new victims of more people. 


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