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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Gay > Rubrieke | Columns > Christina Engela: Fundamentally Speaking

Crime and contemplation


Christina Engela - 2011-12-15

Untitled Document

This past week I have been contemplating crime ... that is, the concept of crime and punishment. People seem to think that punishment and the concept of consequence provides a framework of limitations which go beyond just saying "don't". Punishment implies the "or else ..." and waves a knobbly finger in the air. Some are so quick to demand the death penalty for a certain sort of crime, often without seriously considering the application, implications and consequences of all of the above. Right at the top of my list of concerns is the death penalty – which many people view as a necessity – which they also claim is some form of deterrent – a "magic bullet", if you will, against crime. Hang or fry a few people, and pretty soon would-be criminals will be too frightened to get caught to risk it ... or so the theory goes. But we all know that reality is completely different, don't we? Especially here in sunny South Africa.

Firstly, we have a justice system that is so inept, corrupt and flawed that it would be more appropriate to rename it the Department of Injustice. Case dockets disappear, crucial evidence mysteriously vanishes (along with the occasional witness), and police officials themselves very often switch sides and occasionally find out what the world looks like from the other side of those bars. Often now we hear about people having been victimised and wrongfully arrested by police – and sometimes even wrongfully imprisoned – and we all know how nice it is in South African prisons – to say nothing of the period spent awaiting trial – which in itself can be a sentence, and for some, a death sentence. 

Then there is the complete lack of segregation among prisoners. Now hold on a minute, I said segregation – and I never said anything about races here. I'm talking about separating the novices from the hardened career cases. What I'm getting at is this: you have convict A and convict B. Convict A is a hardened career criminal who started out with robbery, drug-dealing, auto-theft, housebreaking, and recently graduated to aggravated assault and armed robbery and will probably graduate to rape and murder the next time he gets out on parole (and sadly, this does happen). Convict B is 22 years old, and is a first offender for what is laughably called "white-collar crime", doing a two-year stretch for – shall we say? – creative accounting. Is it appropriate to place convict B in a cell with 20 other convicts very similar to convict A? How long do you think convict B will last? Five minutes?

Or are you optimistic enough to think that at the end of his two years, convict B will have whipped all his cell-mates into shape and have them all reading or even studying in their oodles of free time? Or will the reality shock you when you see convict B at the end of his term – emaciated, HIV positive, and a shivering mess? I always believed that the punishment should fit the crime, folks – and I'm sorry, but people shouldn't go to jail for minor or less serious offences – to die, or to suffer a living death for it. If people are sent to jail then that should be the extent of it – they should not be further abused or even raped by fellow inmates and damaged still further.

There is the additional feature that names jails as education centres for criminals. Some criminals go in as inexperienced novices – and if they come out at all, they come out more experienced, because they have learned from the more hardened criminals how to be better at what they do. Of course, the ideal would be not just to separate the different categories of convict, but rather to keep them in small groups of similar cases, so that none of these things happens.

Ironic, if you consider that when the new dispensation took office in 1994, South Africa had just as many woes regarding overcrowding in our prisons – and up to this day, nearly 20 years later, the government has not built any new facilities to house prisoners. Yet there is always more tax money to blow into the air to celebrate non-events such as the centenary of the ANC. Funny, I would think that money would be better spent on the foundering RDP housing scheme – and I do mean scheme, don't I? I often wonder how that gets paid for, and by whom. And why? After all, nobody ever gave my family – or any of my friends’ families – a house for nothing just because of the colour of our skins. No sir – they all had to work for that, and pay 15 or 25 years on that thing called a home loan. And they still do. Still, the RDP houses have a reputation for being poorly built, and even for sometimes falling down, so that one can easily feel sorry for those poor people – even after the keys are handed over to them. 

Kids in school can and do terrorise their teachers (and even some parents) because according to the law they can no longer receive a good thrashing when they actually need it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting parents hang, draw and quarter unruly kids and that teachers actually keel-haul nasty little brats who richly deserve it – but a solid tap on the ass at the appropriate time provided my generation with crucial life experience. We knew that if we did X, then Y would be the consequence – so as a rule, we very seldom did X. And if we ever did, and got Y-ed, well, after the brief pain, humiliation and the warm after-glow faded, we laughed about it with our buddies and showed off the red spot proudly. But more importantly – we grew up knowing that what we did in life, be it good or bad – but especially in terms of breaking the law – could have unpleasant consequences. As a result, we knew our limits. At least, most of us did.

Now kids can disrespect their parents and teachers, refuse to obey them or the rules – and basically do as they like – without any real consequences. Oh, they can be expelled, I hear some say. Really? In many cases, the parents involve the Department of Education or the school – and lo and behold, poor little Johnny whose rights have been impugned, is back in class come Monday morning, intimidating the teacher, bullying his classmates and disrupting class. Don't think it is safe to discipline your own child either – I've heard of a few cases where children laid charges of child abuse and assault against their parents for caring enough about them to discipline them. Yes, they can do that. And for many career criminals, childhood is where it starts.

If the average human can today expect a lifespan of 80-plus years, how in any way, shape or form is 25 years to be seriously considered a "life sentence" for murder?

In my book, the only appropriate sentence for murder is life imprisonment – which means until the fucker stops breathing and no longer has a pulse. Period. Seeing some countries – including this one – doling out 15 – and 25-year sentences for the taking of another life – often violently and hatefully – and calling it "justice" sickens me and I find it offensive.

How does rehabilitation apply? The victims are still dead. They don't get out on parole for good behaviour, or because they've studied in prison, or found a god or two, or started caring for birds in their cells – or whatever BS they use to wangle their ways out of accepting the consequences of their actions.

I don't agree with the death penalty. As long as there is a risk of corruption and tainted evidence (and let's face it, in South Africa that is a distinct possibility) an innocent person could go to jail – and as long as they are still alive, there is a possibility that the truth may yet come to light. Killing someone for killing someone else isn't justice, it's vengeance – and in the wrong hands a death sentence is a weapon of fear and intimidation – imagine who an unjust government would execute – look at Iran, look at the old South Africa?

Some of my human rights activist associates have had a lot to say about this subject, and even a lot to say about my stance on it – needless to say, they disagree with me. They feel that a murderer or rapist can be rehabilitated and fully reintegrated into society, to live a valuable and productive life among other people who (generally speaking) don't make a habit of actually killing or raping anyone (or at the very least, don't actually get caught for it).

Human rights apply to murderers too, in the sense that we respect our own human rights, so we would make hypocrites of ourselves by advocating the state-acted murder of others – even if they are murderers – but remember that these people are themselves murderers and have already killed and deprived someone of their own human rights – and many are repeat offenders – and so it is clearly a danger to allow them to live freely among general society. 

I am not talking about cases where people kill accidentally or in self-defence etc. I am talking about out-and-out murder and rape. I have less than no time for a rapist, and faced with seeing a known rapist drowning, would happily look away. And I don't particularly care too much for the happiness and productive potential or how much of a positive contribution to society such people can supposedly make. They killed other people, they raped and destroyed someone's spirit and ruined their lives to the point where they feel they may as well be dead – they cannot be trusted not to do it again, no matter how sorry they are now.

Imagine your friend, lover, husband, mother is brutally raped and killed – and the killer gets a 15-year state-paid holiday at the taxpayer's expense – and then he still applies for parole after six years’ "good behaviour" – and despite his poor behaviour outside prison (which is the only thing that should count), he gets it. Prison is there to keep murderers off the streets and to keep the rest of us safe.

Forgive and forget, some say. Perhaps they are the lucky ones whose lives have not been touched by these criminals, people whose children have not died in drive-by gang wars, or abducted by drug dealers and human traffickers. Or killed in hate crimes. How do you forgive murder? Does the victim get a chance to decide? What about all the serial murderers roaming our streets currently, who are out on parole right now, and just killing or raping again. I know it happens. We all know it happens nearly every day – repeat offenders are arrested for new crimes while out on parole or bail for other crimes. What is more important – giving a dangerous criminal their freedom to kill or rape again, or protecting the human rights of the public from them

Our society has become so desensitised to it that we seldom remark about it or even read beyond the headlines any more. We are used to the violence and death. The only time we really give a toss is when these events touch our lives personally and intimately. 

I have no pity or sympathy for murderers and rapists. None. They deserve life sentences because of their actions and what they did to their victims. As far as I'm concerned, they gave up the human right to freedom and being part of society when they killed or raped. And my friends in the human rights advocacy field can criticise me for it if they like, but I think that expecting people to respect the "right" of murderers to be released on to the streets to harm more innocent people is just lunacy. It's absurd. 

You can bet dollars to doughnuts their three-year-old daughter will not be the one that vanishes from the sand-pit in their back yard, nor will it be them getting pulled off the street into a sex-for-drugs ring. As far as I'm concerned, housing these fiends in a secure facility, seeing to their needs for food and exercise, and not killing them is respect enough for their human rights. 

I see no need to coddle them, nor to twist the need to keep them from harming other people into some kind of violation of human rights.

I was even given examples to show how "successful" the reintegration of murderers and rapists can be – in the form of Rwanda. I have to say that Rwanda is/was a case of genocide and "civil" war – not domestic murderers killing and raping people without the active support of the state or military force. How can one equate crimes committed in the fight for and against apartheid (and a genocidal war in the case of Rwanda) with run-of-the-mill murder and rape, which are acts in a class of their own, not purely motivated out of those specific conditions – and in the case of South Africa, simply a symptom of the criminal problem we have here?

Murderers and rapists are by definition anti-social, for the very reason that they cannot be trusted around other human beings precisely for the reason that they are murderers and rapists and may very likely kill or rape again. Just saying how "sorry" they are is not good enough – or are these people suggesting that someone who has killed or raped is above lying to get out of jail? I don't care how sorry they are for killing or raping someone – or how sorry they are that they got caught – society is better off without people like that walking around among us like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I am a human rights activist – and I strongly advocate for the adherence to equal human and civil rights for all people – except, however, where the application of all such rights to one group of people who persist in violating the same rights of others endangers the very lives of others. 

What these people are suggesting is a system by which there is no punishment for capital crimes, no reason for people to fear or regret or pay for the consequences of serious actions such as murder or rape, and that everything will be just fine for them after a stay in a state rehabilitation facility, and they can come out again as fully equal members of society who may not be treated like the dangerous criminals and human rights violators they are because it violates their human rights. Sorry, can't and won't agree.

Of course, here in South Africa they seem to be applying this system, because there are so many dangerous repeat-offending criminals on the streets as we speak – out on bail, or parole, who claim to regret their actions, but nevertheless keep on doing it anyway. Shame, I feel so sorry for them, don't you? After all, who cares about the innocent people these monsters rape or murder? The criminals are the real victims here, they've been let down by the system ... and we wouldn't want to deprive them of any human rights, least of all the freedom to continue harming others!