Reflections from Prison
The mere thought of a prison normally conjures up images of hellholes, murkiness, nastiness or terror and many get the heebie-jeebies whenever they contemplate visiting one. By contrast, when one enters Mahalapye Prison premises, those eerie feelings somehow melt away. It looks welcoming and the spick-and-span yard, ever blossoming garden and water fountain by the gate, are enough to lull one into a feeling contentment. What more of men in rusty red outfits going about their daily chores with unassuming ease as one peers further into the high security prison yard. If not laying bricks, some are in a workshop or doing some other duties as the routine crisscrossing through the highly secured gate occasionally turns into an exercise of some sort.
Perhaps, all this seem to represent Botswana Prison Service (BPS) commissioner Silas Motlalekgosi’s dream of rehabilitating prisoners and ultimately reintegrating them back into society. However, it is only after talking to him that one realises the tasks ahead as well as attendant challenges. In an interview with Kutlwano, the prison boss prefers to preface his response with a priority list or what others may term a hierarchy of needs or challenges his clienteles – prisoners- face. “Overcrowding in prisons has become one of the major challenges because the facilities are old and some structures are dilapidated,” he says. As such, Motlalekgosi laments that health issues have become one area of concern hence the need to improve the facilities. There is also need to beef up security to achieve zero escapes from lawful custody besides illegal and dangerous objects finding their way into prison cells. Fights inside prisons remain another challenge.
While many people still regard going to reformatories as punishment for those on the wrong side of the law, Motlalekgosi explains that the mandate of BPS is to rehabilitate lawbreakers. Having been at the helm of the BPS for only four years, thus since 2008, Motlalekgosi says it is too early to suggest that what he set out to achieve is about to be realised because of, among others, inadequate funding. Similarly, Motlalekgosi is not content with the level of welfare for prison officers. “Conditions of service need to be improved so that officers can effectively deliver,” he says alluding to shortage of staff houses. The prison boss would like to see warders provided accommodation within the prison campus for quick response whenever duty calls. He says human resource capacity and development lag behind, noting that while Mahalapye Prison is currently home to approximately 600 high to medium crime inmates, only 200 officers them. Obviously, the number of inmates does not tally with that of officers and Motlalekgosi says this becomes a problem during movement of inmates between facilities during transfers, court appearances or work outside prison which normally requires a pair of warders. He might be worried about the welfare of both inmates and officers but at the end of the day Batswana on the other hand expect Motlalekgosi to deliver on BPS mandate -rehabilitation of convicts and reintegration of ex-convicts.
Explaining the process of rehabilitation in local prisons, Motlalekgosi says one of the challenges is to understand the importance of prison in a modern society. First and foremost, Motlalekgosi says the general public should be made to understand the key aim of imprisonment. Secondly, the leadership should also be made aware of the impact of imprisonment in society through involvement and understanding of rehabilitation and reintegration. Once that has been put in motion, prisoners then become the third important stakeholder in the rehabilitation process because once society as a whole accepts them, it then becomes easier for inmates to accept their situation, thus smoothening the character moulding process, counseling and training on trade skills. “Acceptance comes from understanding through public education and it results from effective communication,” says Motlalekgosi, adding that the strategy is already bearing fruit. Of late, the BPS has established networks with different organisations while civil society has shown keen interest in the rehabilitation of inmates, which Motlalekgosi says makes the job easier. He says ex-convicts also deserve respect and their skills should be put to good use.
The BPS is currently working with all relevant structures such as the Attorney General’s Chambers, Directorate of Public Service Management, Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Infrastructure and Manpower so that “finger printing” does not become a stumbling block when ex-convicts go job hunting, he says. Motlalekgosi says significant progress has been made and discussions and studies are underway to determine how stakeholders should go about the issue. “If we don’t accept them they go back to prison and people should understand that rehabilitation and integration cut across all sectors, be it political or economic,” says Motlalekgosi who talks about his job with passion. Life has become tougher in this dark world of sin since the recession wave swept across the globe and Motlalekgosi laments that when ex-convicts are faced with another challenge of stigmatization their only option is to commit crime and go back to jail. Incidentally, Motlalekgosi says he has made strides since he took over.
Taking the prison services to the people through partnership with important stakeholders such as the media saw a positive response from Batswana hence taking rehabilitation of convicts to another level. One of Motlalekgosi’s convictions is that without an open door policy, progress will be hard to come by. And to top it all, he also expresses gratitude to his leadership and a team of patient prison officers. Motlalekgosi’s devotion and love for his job certainly have the potential to make BPS live Vision 2016 but the prison boss regrets that escalating stock theft cases still remain a blemish on an otherwise noble course. Stock theft convicts, he reveals, top the list of inmates countrywide and those involved range from juveniles to adults and many of them are repeat offenders. Otherwise, Motlalekgosi is happy that despite challenges the BPS is well on track to fulfill its mandate. ENDS