More than three-quarters of American ex-cons commit another crime within five years of being released. Despite an estimated turnover of $74 billion per year—a figure greater than the GDP of 133 nations—the prison system is broken. Despite countless new approaches, almost nothing works: punishment alone does little to deter violent criminals and very few rehabilitative approaches offer any statistically significant reduction in re-offending.
In South Africa, recidivism rates are among the worst in the world: between 80% and 94% of released prisoners reoffend. Familial rejection, the difficulty of finding work with a criminal record, and the pull of old relationships with criminal gangs all draw released offenders back into the thrall of violent crime.
Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Security Studies and former Investigator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spent five years interviewing some of South Africa’s most violent criminals for her unflinching chronicle of offenders’ life stories, Beaten Bad. She believes that public policy has been coming at the problem of crime and punishment from the wrong angle. The emphasis, she argues, should be less on rehabilitation than primary prevention throughout childhood and adolescence.
Here, we publish an edited transcript of Apolitical’s interview with one of South Africa’s leading lights in violence prevention:
Beaten Bad comprises five years of interviews with some of South Africa’s most violent criminals. What conclusions did you draw from speaking to inmates?
Perhaps the most important conclusion is that intervening later in life is unlikely to be as effective as interventions that prevent children from witnessing and experiencing violence in their homes and neighbourhoods in the first place. Providing support to prisoners might have some effect, but it’s much too late. The way to prevent recidivism is by preventing them committing crimes in the first place.
Do tougher policing and the threat of prison prevent violence?
Prison is not an effective deterrent: when you’re living a fast, survivalist life, long-term planning doesn’t feature. Thinking about a ten-year sentence doesn’t even enter your consciousness, especially when you don’t think you’re going to get caught.
The return of harsh policing is no good either: police officers are behaving in much the same way as criminal gangs behave towards one another. The South African Minister of Police has demanded that officers show no mercy to criminals—as if responding to violence with violence will work.
What we need is to model compassionate, non-violent behaviour for everyone from an early age. Thinking all we need is to be tough and clamp down on crime is setting ourselves up for a much longer timeframe in which we’re going to experience high levels of violence.
Are stubbornly high rates of crime and recidivism a failing of social services too?
When your social services are enormously stretched as they are in South Africa, staff don’t have the resources to intervene at critical points. Disengagement from pro-social activities, truancy and the beginning of involvement in petty crime are vital intervention moments that are routinely missed.
In addition, it’s very hard for stretched social service workers to model the kind of peaceful, loving behaviour that we want to see demonstrated more broadly in society. Often, offenders are met with the same kind of harsh behaviour they experienced at home or school and which set them on their path.
Early childhood development is a hot topic in policy circles and the first 1,000 days of a child’s life now swallows up an enormous amount of funding. Is that where we should be intervening?
The trend toward focusing exclusively on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is misguided—if you don’t sustain support and interventions, you lose the gains that you make in early years.
But it’s very clear from sociology, psychology and epigenetics, that the environment that a foetus experiences or a small child experiences influences their lifelong brain development. Mums need support throughout pregnancy and early parenting. Women must have routes out of abusive relationships. Schools need to clamp down on bullying. Corporal punishment by teachers and parents must be stopped. Anything that exposes children to violence should be prioritised.
There are more abstract social norms we must reform, too: gender norms we instil from birth are hugely influential. Many parents believe boys need less love and attention than girls—that they are less vulnerable and they must learn to become “providers.” In doing that, we deny men the pleasure of being caregivers and the fulfilment that comes from having warm loving relationships. Women often reinforce these harmful notions of masculinity because we see it to be to our advantage.
Does the predominance of focusing on violence against women need to shift?
In some ways, yes. The Optimus study in South Africa showed that boys were just as likely to be sexually abused as children, but girls are more likely than boys to seek and get help.
The prioritisation of violence against women is justified insofar as rates of rape and domestic violence are extremely high and are critical to the repetitive cycle of violence, but we miss the point entirely if we fail to prevent violence against men and boys who then become perpetrators.
Perhaps the problem goes even deeper: many of your interviewees did not consider certain forms of behaviour—including statutory rape—as violent. How does that shift?
I remember interviewing one man about his relationship was his father. His first response was to say that his father was a wonderful man and he had huge respect for him. It was only after three hours that he said his father used to take his rage and jealousy out on his mother. He went on to tell me that he had only dropped out of school because he was too afraid to leave his mother alone at home for fear that he would return and find her dead.
In his consciousness, there was no understanding of this as terrible violence. When these behaviours are left to become normalised, young men don’t develop a sense of what is and is not acceptable behaviour.
From the earliest years, all levels of society—politicians, church leaders, teachers, and parents—must be explicit in calling psychological abuse, neglect, and sexual and domestic abuse for what it is: unacceptable violence.
What about more tangible policies such as gun control?
It’s not an “either … or” – it should be “both … and.” Shifting the cultural norms that normalise and encourage violence goes hand-in-hand with gun control.
Among the men I interviewed, it was clear that the earlier they came into possession of a gun, the more quickly their crimes escalated to extreme violence. Having a gun made them feel invincible and encouraged them to take enormous risks: while mugging someone at knifepoint might earn them a few hundred rand, carjacking at gunpoint could be worth thousands. Guns multiply the problem posed by violence exponentially.
Moving a focus on recidivism to violence prevention shifts the issue from the criminal justice system to a public health model of intervention. How should this impact policy?
The public health understanding of violence is helpful in a number of ways: it draws attention to the fact we need to look at what’s happening to individuals, at the level of relationships, communities and at the macroscopic society level. It has also helped us unpick the risk factors for violence and draw attention to early childhood, prevention, and environment.
What becomes clear from the stories in Beaten Bad, however, is that humans are not just agglomerations of risk factors. The way in which events happen in our lives is unique to each individual life. What it calls for is a nuanced understanding of the drivers of violence and a flexibility in the way in which we make policy: not all communities are the same and not all programs will work in all geographical, socio-economic or ethnic areas.
Context is crucial, and policymakers need to be much more responsive to it.
(Picture credit: Pexels/Donald Tong)