July 31 2006 at 07:00AM
The periodic mass release of South African prisoners will continue for several years because the country is unlikely to "build itself" out of the problem of overcrowded jails.
This is according to American sociology and criminal justice researcher Dr Susan Smith-Cunnien, who has been studying the issue of overcrowded prisons and mass prisoner releases in South Africa and the US.
The University of St Thomas (Minneapolis) researcher told the World Congress of Sociology in Durban last week that the US and South Africa had among the highest rates of incarceration in the world according to a recent United Nations survey.
The US topped the list and currently locked up nearly 738 out of every 100 000 citizens (almost one in 100 people), while South Africa had the 23rd highest incarceration rate in the world, at 344 prisoners per 100 000 citizens.
The world average is about 187 prisoners per 100 000 people.
In drawing comparisons between the two countries, Smith-Cunnien said the US had a total population about six times larger than South Africa.
Whereas South Africa currently had 240 correctional service facilities and 190 000 inmates, the US had about 2,1-million prisoners in more than 5 000 federal or state prisons, or confinement centres.
South Africa had a murder rate of about 40 victims per 100 000 people, whereas the US murder rate was about five victims per 100 000 people.
Rape rates in South Africa were more than three times higher than in the US. The burglary rates were similar, but the theft rate in the US was almost twice as high as in South Africa.
Smith-Cunnien said one of the inevitable results of high crime rates in both countries was prison overcrowding and periodic mass releases of prisoners.
In South Africa, the prison population had grown enormously between 1995 and 2000, partly because of an increase in crime and partly because of a surge in the awaiting-trial population.
In July 1998, about 9 000 prisoners were released early to coincide with former president Nelson Mandela's birthday, and in September 2000 the government announced it would release 11 000 awaiting-trial prisoners, with another 7 000 prisoners getting early releases.
In July 2003 the Correctional Services Department announced plans for the early release of another 7 000 prisoners, while another 18 000 prisoners were released in June last year.
There had been similar mass releases in the US in the past 30 years, although prisoners were released in smaller batches from individual jails rather than in system-wide releases.
By the 1980s, overcrowding was so severe in parts that some states passed emergency release laws.
The US also saw a huge surge in prison populations, with inmates increasing from 500 000 in 1980 to more than 2-million in 2004. This was attributed to new minimum sentences and a surge in drug-related convictions.
Apart from mass releases, the US had responded with a major programme to increase the number of prisons between the 1980s and 1990s.
Further mass releases were unlikely to happen in the US, she said, but were likely to continue in South Africa as a matter of necessity until the country was able to establish a new, more informal community correctional system.
"While the South African government has been willing to invest in prison construction and renovation, the reality is that other issues facing the nation - education, health and family support - are more pressing than those faced in the US.
"Thus from a financial perspective, it is unlikely that South Africa could 'build itself' out of the prison overcrowding system even if that should be the path it would prefer."
This article was originally published on page 5 of Pretoria News on July 31, 2006