Crime, Punishment and Rehabilitation

By Glenn Ashton · 20 May 2010

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South Africa has a crime problem. The resounding call from society is to incarcerate criminals, to remove them from the population. 

Given increasing spending on the justice system, putting more police on the ground, the inevitable result is increasing numbers of criminals entering prison. Prisons become ever more overcrowded and are struggling to cope despite new institutions being built.

Our Department of Correctional Services (DCS) has come in for some heavy criticism over the years, much of it justified. Under apartheid, prisons were little more than extensions of the system, divided along racial lines and as discriminatory in their diet and treatment of prisoners as the external social environment. Since apartheid, much has changed, but much remains the same.

DCS has failed to meaningfully transform, mainly through poor leadership. Continued allegations of profound corruption have been levelled against the department both by the Jali Commission in 2002 and since, with little concrete action to stem the rot. While there are some good people within the system, the rehabilitation of prisoners remains elusive.

The system is plagued by many historical problems like gangs, overcrowding, poorly trained warders, and corruption. Yet central to the issue of rehabilitation is the fact that we still have not properly formulated any real concept of how to rehabilitate a population that remains as heterogeneous as society at large. 

Prisons here, in common with those elsewhere in the world, act as universities of crime. While prisons such as Robben Island were political universities, and key focus points in the struggle against apartheid, the prison system remains a reflection of a divided society. Most inmates are drawn from the most deprived sectors of society and seldom from the privileged classes. 

The reasons that people end up in prison are as varied as the motives for the crimes. Circumstance, hate, social dislocation, necessity, greed, dependence and substance abuse, peer pressure, mental aberrations and absent parents are just some causes of people being sentenced to jail terms.

Some well-considered and intentioned programmes have emerged in DCS, devised to divert, educate and break the cycle of recidivism. The problem with many of these programmes is the uniform approach, similar to a formalised educational system. While, for instance, completing a course in recognising the rights of victims of crime may enable law breakers to categorise their wrongdoing, this approach fails to get inside the heads and hearts of individuals, especially those suffering from a common symptom in the criminal world, namely denial.

That is, until recently, where a pioneering system has been trialled within a few prisons in the Western Cape with remarkable results. What is even more remarkable is that this system is the brainchild of a person who is untrained in the issues of criminal rehabilitation and who only came to South Africa in 2006. 

Karina Andersen came to South Africa with her two children after her husband was killed in a car accident in Europe. She chose a complete change of life to move away from her past. This young, single mother, in a strange country, which she rapidly grew to love for its people, climate and physical beauty has managed what many others have failed to do: To turn hardened, cynical killers and hitmen, many involved in high profile cases, into people who would not only integrate readily into normal society, but who now wish to prevent others from falling into the traps that they did.

Soon after coming to South Africa, Andersen published a book spurred by her life and experiences called “The Responsible Individual.” Upon first examination someone browsing this book may be inclined to dismiss it as simply another new age, self help book, to help and reach the disenchanted questioners of modern ways. But for prisoners who I met on a recent visit to Brandvlei Maximum prison near Worcester in the Western Cape, this book meant far more than that.

These prisoners have clearly been deeply affected by “the book,” as they refer to it. The occasion of my visit was an award ceremony for those who had completed both the initial introduction to the concepts encapsulated within the book as well as the first class of trainers who have qualified to both take new groups through the course as well as to train new trainers.

The beauty of Andersen's “Responsible Individual” approach is that it goes to the core of every person who does the course. This is not just a book to be read. It is a course that has to be worked through. In the process it takes the participant to places in their inner landscape they have never previously had the opportunity to venture. And this is not an easy thing.

During the award ceremony I witnessed, prisoners spoke about the path toward responsibility, starting off saying that they thought that they were responsible people before they started this course. The realisation and admission to themselves that they were in fact not at all responsible but were, like so many people in society at large, in denial about the degree of responsibility they took for their actions.

“It is easy to write a test, or do a course on reintegration into society, but the difference is that learning to be a responsible individual is a scary journey. You have too look deep, man, right into your heart of hearts. And that is not easy for us here.” said one of the graduates of the course. 

And this is the remarkable thing about this course. That it has allowed some of South Africans most hardened criminals the space and provided the tools for them to open up their own private doors into their inner selves, to look honestly and to learn the real value of each persons self.

If each of us were responsible citizens, we could theoretically live in a perfect world. Through realising our obligations to both ourselves and those that share our world, through self examination and reflection, through learning from the challenges we face in life and how we react to these challenges, understanding how we see ourselves and how others see us; all of these are essential steps in achieving insight. These are lessons of self and not broad sociological generalisations that come from rote classroom learning.

“The Responsible Individual” was not written with prisoners and criminals in mind. Yet it is rapidly proving its worth in the criminal justice system that for so long has tried to reform those who have failed to remain within the bounds set by our legal codes. 

By transforming prisoners into responsible individuals, this course run by Andersen in Brandvlei and her colleague in Goodwood Medium has shown that it is possible to not just rehabilitate prisoners but to enable them to become useful, productive members of society. Her vision now is to seek external support in order that the trainers she has trained can roll the programme out, both within DCS and also outside the prison system altogether, in the world at large.

The unthinking response to crime to “lock them up and toss away the key,” fails to consider the double costs on society of such actions. We not only lose potentially productive members of society, but also add these costs – over R15 billon per annum - to an already heavy tax burden. These people have families and children who have been inadvertently caught in the cycle of crime. Many criminals cite their own lack of parental guidance as a key reason for their own criminality.

If a convicted criminal fails to comprehend what they have truly done wrong what hope is there of rehabilitation? Self-knowledge and understanding is a profound and wonderful gift that many fail to achieve during their brief passage through life. This programme holds the potential to shift us away from punitive incarceration and instead take us toward true rehabilitation.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Meeghan Norwitz
20 May

Responsible Rehabilitation

Thank you for this thought provoking article. As a coach guiding these people, I can fully attest to the profound affects this process has on the inmates that have made themselves a priority, and chosen to delve into the deep dark areas of themselves.

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Sarah Henkeman
21 May

Responsible Rehabilitation

It is always encouraging to hear what individuals are doing with regard to crime.

I am however taken aback by two things -

(i) The writer completely ignores the work done by local individuals and organisations. Organisations like Quaker Peace Centre, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Nicro, Khulisa, many religious groups and outstanding individuals. A few years ago a movie about prisons showed the individual work done by some local organisations. Here I speak mainly for the Western Cape - there are many such initiatives in other provinces.

ii) As someone with a background in Criminology (mainly peacemaking crim), I too was quite enamoured with individual work up to a few years ago. These days I am more ocnvinced that both society AND the individual need to change for us to havge any significant impact on crime levels.

There is an interaction between the causes and correlates you mention; and our societal pathology.

With respect, it appears that the writer is not very familiar with the subject matter he chose to comment on. at best it lionises the valuable input of compassionate outsiders while completely obscuring the sterling work done by locals.

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22 May

Thank You

Just to thank you for this book, where can I get a copy and are you planning to roll out this course Im sure it can benefit lot of people espcially community and political leaders.

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22 May

Social Responsibility More Important for Systemic Problems

I must agree with Sarah Henkeman on all the points she raises.

In addition, just to say that the whole issue of crime is a systemic problem. While individual responsibility plays some part in how peoples' lives pan out, it does still only play a small part compared to the social responsibility needed to address our society's systemic problems of inequality and related prejudices.

Think of all the wonderful women from poor townships starting community projects while struggling to make ends meet themselves, working within an entire system stacked against them. Neither do these women carry international passports, nor do they operate in upper middle class circles where the opportunities to promote their efforts would be so much easier - as they have proven to be for Andersen. Moreover, while Andersen's attempts are noble, neither are they earth shattering in their significance nor do they get to the crux of the crisis in crime.

American civil rights activist Elizabeth Martinez, rightly assesses the concept of individual responsibility within a critique of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism eliminates "the concept of the public good and replaces it with individual responsibility. Pressuring the poorest people in a society to find solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security all by themselves -- then blaming them, if they fail, as lazy."

Frankly this article is uninformed, poorly framed, reinforces conventional prejudices and is not what I would have expected to find on SACSIS.

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SmilingOne Verified user
23 May

ONE SOCIETY - it starts with a better ME for a better WE : )

@ Sarah - yes, there are many local people contributing with wonderful initiatives. We are building a platform

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farouk ulueme
23 May

Responsible Rehabilitation

What an amazing article. true to its form. amazing because i am a true testimony of what intense effect, the programme, the responsible individual, has on so called criminals as i used to be. of all the time i spent in jail, the responsible individual, is the only one programme that provides me with the possibility of being true to myself: of finding me: of understanding my purpose and reason for being who i was at that moment.

By October 2008,when i first met Ms Andersen and was introduced to the programme

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26 May

rehabilitaiton in an unjust society.

Thanks for the interesting comments.

@ Sarah, I must agree that there are other groups doing great work in the DCS system and outside it - there simply was not space to speak to all of these in this particular article. Perhaps at another time an overview of rehab systems may be apposite. I simply was writing about what I saw during a visit to a prison and what I learned from talking to both those who had done a particular course and those who have not, as well as the members.

I agree completely that much of the problem lies within society iteself and that both society and individual must change but again that is a topic for a book rather than a short article!

Being familiar with the work of Steinberg, Pinnock, NICRO and others analysis of the prison system I am perhaps not as uninformed as the commentator may believe. My point was it was not only me who was blown away by the what I saw in Brandvlei, which exceeded any expectations I had, but it was the staff and most importantly the positive and engaging attitude of the inmates, even those not enrolled in this particular programme that was seriously impressive.

There are indeed many other programmes out there, many of them extremely successful and progressive programmes. But this particular programme carries a seed of real change. It may be worthwhile to examine it more closely rather than dismiss it out of hand.

@ Asma, similarly I must agree wholeheartedly with you re. the systematic social inequalities and injustices that lie behind so much crime in SA - not to mention elsewhere in the world. I alluded to this but again this article was not meant to address those issues, nor did I have space to do justice to this issue. It is really the subject of a stand alone article - or book - that would require a lot more space to do justice to the issue, if you will excuse the rather poor pun.

Instead I concentrated only on one system, perhaps to the apparent detriment of portrayal of an objective perspective.

I believe your critique of Andersen to be misplaced and uninformed and think that perhaps it would instead be more constructive to examine what is really going on rather than biasedly dismiss it as coming from some sort of parachute upper class philanthropism - this programme is really nothing of the sort and that comment is badly uninformed.

As an established critic of neoliberalism, I would also suggest your quote of Martinez is self serving and does not really address the real issue that is being dealt with here but only serves to support your line of debate. Nowhere does the system of the responsible individual as proposed by Andersen serve to dismiss the neo-liberal critique, nor does it reject or pass any judgement on those who fail either in this work or in any other aspect of rehabilitation.

The course is simply one more tool in a rather limited toolbox that can serve to create the belief in people that they can succeed after being beaten down repeatedly by a system that is institutionally structured against the interests of the poor and dispossessed, through realising the potential in each of us, no matter how damaged we may be. Seizing on a name - the responsible individual - and juxtaposing it against a self serving quote is a long way from making a watertight case.

Again, i think that instead of criticising something without really understanding what it does or consists of - for again there was not really room to unpack the various approaches and background to this work, which include gestalt and other tools used in a most progressive manner - it would perhaps be more constructive to properly examine it and see how it does work and if it can be improved, not just to pick percieved holes in it and dismiss it. This is not really a case of seeing a glass half full or empty. No matter which way I looked at this glass it was brimming.

And as an old cynic I am not easily impressed. Pehaps I erred in how I put across the concepts but reading the comment of Farouk it would seem not.

Globally there are very few systems that have been shown to work in rehabiltation, paricularly of hardened criminals. Rather than dismissing this programme as coming from a white, european, neo-liberal, middle class background - a critique which reflects more on our own background, than what is really going on here - it would perhaps be more constructive to really understand what is being acheived, no matter where it comes from.

The intent behind this programme is good and its results are good. So what is so bad about that? That is my real question. If we can improve a bad, no, an awful situation, then lets give it a go. Whats to lose? There surely is a lot to gain?

I really must reject both of these critiques as shallow and uninformed, however well intentioned they may be. Perhaps Asma and Sarah should speak to Farouk, who I have not met and do not know and see what he really has to say, rather than simply construct an intellectual dismissal founded on swampy suppositions.

Glenn Ashton

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27 May

Our System is Set up for Failure

Because it is this failure that will inspire investment in more prisons, more courts, more prosecutors, more advocates, more infrastructure, more private security advisors and short crime is a lucrative business...but not for the criminals and the victims!

If we provide our country with the right developmental policies that will promote the industrial growth needed, which will encourage job creation, coupled with spending on the side of crime prevention rather that after the crime has been commited, then we stand a chance to see a real reduction in crime.

Right now our politicians are busy with the bandaid treatment while the patient needs some serious intervention!

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SarahHenkeman Verified user
31 May


Hi Glen, I'm really sorry about the fact that I botched an attempt to communicate my central point.

I think the reviewer of the 'must read' 'Spirit Level" says it far more elegantly than I can: Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality - within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging.'

So, my point is, that while individual work (and anyone associated with it), is highly commendable - it is, with the very greatest respect, a bandaid ministry.

The response was neither intended to be an intellectual dismissal, nor is it founded on swampy suppositions. I just don't have the tools (yet ) to verbalise/prove my conviction (no pun intended) in a way that would be satisfactory at an academic level. Working on it though.

Be good - I usually enjoy this publication and your articles. This one triggered me - because its more than an intellectual interest to me. I live for the day that we 'arrest', 'harass', 'stereotype' and 'rehabilitate' conspicious consumerism rather than Black Young Men!

On a very personal note, I live for the day that my Black sons can inhabit this society freely, without being routinely harassed and treated with suspicion - simply because they are Black Young Men - the supposed 'face of crime'! Bandaid is not enough.

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9 Jun

Social Results of Dislocation

@ Sarah, thanks again for your comments. I again must agree with you, especially with your comment from the review of "The spirit level" (which I reviewed on this site!), that attempts at rehab are bandaid on a larger social problem that is an inherent result in our polarised society at the very extremes of the GINI co-efficient.
While we must strive to build an eglatarian society, something I hack on about continually, there will always be those who end up imprisoned for stepping outside the bounds of social norms, even in the most equal societies. While some may be considered beyond hope or redemption we have to have programmes that work toward helping whatever went wrong in these peoples lives. After all even in the most unequal societies there are those who have imbued values that get them through life without harming others, either through good parenting, mentoring or perhaps luck. If we can provide some sort of method to assist those who were not fortunate enough to be brought up with a full toolbox then it is not a bad thing. Sure there will always be racial profiling - look not even at the USA but more equal societies like Germany and Japan and you will find that many of those who end up in jail are "outsiders".
There are indeed many factors to consider but I think that programmes that help people to internalise both their issues and to understand those of society at large then perhaps we are heading in a more positive direction. Its also always a case of half full or half empty and how one perceives ones lot.
As far as communication about these things goes, a lot lies around the nuance and how one approaches an issue and how that then resonates with readers - never easy if one tries to humanise an issue - there will always be someone who sees things differently. And this is good.

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