E-NEWS - 2010

'These are human beings we are dealing with' -- Fighting Prisoner Rape in South Africa

Greetings from beautiful Cape Town.

A team from Just Detention International is here working with South African prison officials, advocates, and legislators to address the sexual abuse that plagues this country's detention centers.

Prisons in South Africa are disastrously overcrowded. Inmates frequently have to share beds, or, in many cases, sleep on the floor. Cells designed for 20 people often hold 50. Worse still, the Department of Correctional Services has no night shift, meaning that in the mid-afternoon, prisoners are locked into those communal cells, with no supervision at all until the following morning. A skeleton staff remains in the facility overnight, but even if they want to, they cannot enter the cells -- not even when they hear screaming. They don't have the keys.

As you can imagine, this is a recipe for abuse. Gangs control the prisons at night, and they use rape to enforce their rule. This means that in a country where a shocking 40 percent of prisoners are living with HIV, prison terms of any length often amount to de facto death sentences. Huge numbers of prisoners are released from prison with the virus every year, bringing it back to their communities -- which are usually the poorest and most marginalized.

Back in 2004, three prison guards from the notorious Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, one of the toughest facilities in the country, were struggling to protect vulnerable prisoners from rape -- small, first-time inmates, the mentally ill, non-violent detainees, openly gay prisoners, and kids, to mention a few. They needed help, urgently, and the officers tracked down the only organization in the world that is dedicated to ending this type of abuse -- Just Detention International.

The courage of these three individuals was extraordinary. They put their careers and their own safety at risk, and they showed that the battle to end abuse doesn't have to be one where prison staff are pitted against prisoners. The fight to stop prisoner rape is more fundamental than that -- it's about every human being's basic right to dignity. JDI first came to South Africa at their invitation five years ago, and we've been coming back regularly ever since.

The other night, we had dinner with one of these same three guards, Chris Malgas. Still working at Pollsmoor, still in his uniform, doing everything he can to protect the safety of the youth in his charge, he reminded us of one of the simplest truths of this work:

"These are human beings we are dealing with. Both the staff and the inmates. They can change. They will change, if we treat them with respect."

Working with Chris and many others here, we have trained corrections officials across the country, and held workshops with hundreds of independent prison ombudspersons, helping them understand the dynamics of sexual abuse in detention. We have also helped the South African Department of Correctional Services draft policies that specifically address the problem of prisoner rape -- modeled on the national standards we helped develop in the U.S., as mandated by the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act. And a couple of days ago, members of Parliament asked us to help develop new legislation addressing prisoner rape.

There is hope for change in South Africa's prisons. Just like in the United States, sexual violence in detention is preventable here. Laws, policies, and attitudes can be changed anywhere. With political will and committed corrections leaders, rape and other forms of abuse can be stopped.

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