Address by President Nelson Mandela at the official launch of the Retraining and Human Rights Project of the Department of Correctional Services

25 June 1998

Minister of Correctional Services;
Premier of the Free State;
Ladies and gentlemen.

The way that a society treats its prisoners is one of the sharpest reflections of its character. That fact lends particular significance to today's proceedings.

In the prisons of apartheid the inhumanity of that system was starkly evident. Perhaps that can only be fully appreciated by those who had the experience of incarceration as a black person under the apartheid regime. But all of us do know that it was a prison system with no room for human rights, one designed to rob each prisoner of his human dignity and which thereby in the end also took away the human dignity of the prison authorities and personnel themselves.

Sealed off from exposure to international influences and trends, hidden from the media; and steeped in a militaristic and security perspective and training, our country's prisons were in all these respects like the apartheid system itself, only more intensely so. We have inherited a system ill-equipped to serve the needs of a democratic society founded on a culture of human rights.

We recall these facts, not to dwell on the past, but to underline the fact that as we transform our society, the Department of Correctional Services faces a very great challenge.

It is no easy task to bring an institution with such a history into line with our new Constitution - so that it becomes representative of our society; transparent; and allows for the establishment of a human rights culture. But South Africans have confounded the prophets of doom by their capacity to work together in order to surmount problems that might seem impossible to others.

We are confident that we will succeed in this too, although we do not underestimate the magnitude of the problem. The task is made even more difficult by the severe overcrowding of our prisons. That puts strain on the conditions under which prisoners live and officials work, and on the programmes for the development of inmates.

This too is part of apartheid's legacy. One of the most serious problems of our transition is the totally unacceptable level of crime. The freedom and democracy for which we struggled so long will remain incomplete while criminals undermine our safety and security.

Our National Crime Prevention Strategy is beginning to turn the tide against the criminals. We are confident that the police have the situation under control, and that includes the high success-rate in apprehending attackers of farmers. But we have a long way to go in bringing crime down to an acceptable rate. We also know that a lasting solution depends on the combined efforts of government departments and sectors of society.

Correctional Services has a vital role to play.

It is one of the ironies of our situation that in the short term, the successes of the police are also increasing our prison population even further.

It is encouraging to know that despite the difficulties of overcrowding, the number of escapes from prison has been substantially cut in recent times. I am sure that the Management and Staff will be able to sustain this achievement. The public expects and deserves no less. Secure prisons are essential to making our justice system an effective weapon against crime. When prisoners -convicted or awaiting trial - are entrusted to your care, they must know and the public must know that they will remain there until they are legally discharged.

Some of the escapes from custody clearly take place with the collaboration of prisons officials. This is part of the unacceptable corruption that is being experienced in our criminal justice system.

The smuggling of weapons and banned or illegal substances into our prisons are also facilitated by corrupt elements within our prisons service. On a continuous basis, I also receive reports that some of the criminal syndicates co-ordinate their activities from behind our prison walls.

All this calls on al of us to raise our levels of vigilance. We are saying this to indicate another significant role you can play in combating crime. It also indicates how large a role corrupt elements can play in shielding criminal networks.

My delight stems from the knowledge that these devious elements are in the minority and can never rest secure in their deeds. They are not at all comfortable as we keep exposing them.

Ladies and gentlemen;

The full contribution which our prisons can make towards a permanent reduction in the country's crime-rate lies also in the way in which they treat prisoners. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of both professionalism and respect for human rights.

We need a climate that is conducive to prisoners becoming law-abaiding citizens. We will not find lasting solutions if we continue to treat our prisoners in the old way, denying them their dignity and their rights as humans.

And if our prisons are to become places of rehabilitation we need to equip the men and women who work in them to do the job professionally and effectively. We need to ensure that prisoners as well as correctional officials have an understanding of human rights and of their respective responsibilities.

It is therefore a great pleasure to take part today in the launching of a project for the comprehensive re-training of all correctional officials in professional skills and for the training of both inmates and officials in human rights.

All our achievements as a nation have depended on partnership. We should congratulate the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation; Lawyers for Human Rights; and the Electoral Institute for joining hands with the Department of Correctional Services to run a pilot human rights training programme that will lay the basis for a nationwide programme.

In conclusion, I would like to congratulate the Minister and his department for undertaking an initiative which addresses issues of great importance for the future of our society.

The measure of this programme will be the extent to which it creates secure prisons with an environment that help inmates realise their potential and to assume their responsibility to become valued members of society.

In that way it will help give us prisons worthy of our democracy, prisons that help secure our freedom.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation