Shackled to the past: how our jails are sliding dangerously ...

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Shackled to the past: how our jails are sliding dangerously backwards

Contrary to what Mandela envisioned, we cram our prisons and block avenues of rehabilitation and reform

Edwin Cameron

The end of apartheid brought about a remarkable change in the way we approached crime and punishment. The world’s most famous former “criminal”, Nelson Mandela, now president of SA’s constitutional democracy, had experienced the viciously punitive, small-minded worst of apartheid’s prisons. His government abandoned the retributive approach apartheid embodied. Instead, Mandela inspired a fundamental transition.

Instead of putting retribution first, our country embraced a restorative approach to offenders and their punishment. This demanded that prison conditions respect human dignity. Rather than punitive detention only, our constitution promised a system of corrections grounded in human rights. No longer would prisoners be discarded as irredeemable burdens. Instead, they would be treated as people worthy of respect and rehabilitation. The correctional services statute enacted in 1998, while Mandela was president, eloquently embodies this approach.

More than two decades later, reality is more harsh...

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