“Our constitutional democracy sits with human dignity as a basic tenant. In other words, Ubuntu/botho (humanity), is central even in the pursuit of justice.”
These words were shared by Ronald Lamola, South African Minister of Justice and Correctional Services of South Africa, during an interview with Justice Trends.
He continues to describe the justice system as a “transformative process” but one can argue that this is only achieved through effective rehabilitation programs.
What does rehabilitation look like? How are these programs established? And are rehabilitation efforts a one-size-fits-all?
Introducing Unorthodox Project
In an effort to understand rehabilitation in South Africa, and how it impacts the country’s high recidivism rate, we spoke with Warren Baynes, a South African photographer and filmmaker.
In 2015, Warren crossed paths with Linten, an aspiring boxer who learned his athletic discipline while incarcerated in Drakenstein Correctional Facility. The encounter inspired Warren to better understand boxing as a rehabilitation tool, as well as the idea of identity among young men in gangs.
Warren says, “Linten was the catalyst for my interest in boxing as a rehabilitation tool inside correctional services. His life reflected the lives of many young South Africans in gang areas. Boxing had given him the tools and discipline to be a better person and to make, arguably, some of the toughest life choices there are.”
Assumptions about Rehabilitation Methods
Enrolling a violent individual in a boxing program as part of rehabilitation may seem to be counter-intuitive - at first.
What is criminal rehabilitation? In an ideal situation, the process empowers incarcerated individuals to separate themselves from the factors that initially led to their criminal behaviour. Essentially, rehabilitation involves correcting the mind and behaviour of those who have offended.
In South Africa, the concept of “prisons” has undergone a “paradigm shift” to be called “correctional facilities”. The South African Department of Correctional Services (DCS) has the constitutional responsibility to provide rehabilitation programs that address offenders' criminal behaviour.
Initially, Warren grappled to understand the role that boxing could play in rehabilitation and his intrigue inspired his three-year-long project, Unorthodox.
Yet through patience and a willingness to understand, the fog that previously hovered over the concept started to lift.
“The offenders that really embraced boxing as a lifestyle choice had developed values of respect and discipline and had committed themselves to their training. When they arrived to train they were the ones leading the groups in warm ups; in sparring sessions they were controlled and calculated, not throwing punches wildly. In the boxing club, there was a sense of community among those offenders committed to their practice. I witnessed a sense of community in the club, it was a place where these young men had a chance to develop themselves as fighters and men.”
Realising that a boxing program in a correctional facility has the potential for change is just the tip of the iceberg. Understanding how it contributes to growth of character and the ability to break away from gang culture indoctrination is a lot more layered.
The Role of Rehabilitation
A person’s journey with the justice system is largely shaped by the decisions that they make behind bars. A lot of the responsibility lies on the individual to choose rehabilitation.
Warren explains, “The decision to be involved with the boxing program is entirely up to the offenders. Once offenders are moved from maximum to medium security sections they are entitled to certain privileges. It’s entirely their choice, but privileges can be revoked if they are caught being part of any illicit activities. Being a part of different rehabilitation programs that the facility offers does read positively on an offender's parole application.”
Various studies emphasise the role of rehabilitation in helping incarcerated people reenter society and not reoffend. Sadly, rehabilitation initiatives in South African correctional institutions are inadequate and considered to be one of the reasons for repeated offences.
An AJCJS paper describes rehabilitation initiatives as “non-existent” which could explain why recidivism rates in South Africa lie between 55% and 95%.
Effective rehabilitation involves separating incarcerated people from the factors that caused them to offend in the first place.
In South Africa, crime levels are credited to poverty, social stress, the lack of guardianship and generations of systemic oppression. In townships and lower-income areas, many men are raised without a father and gang leaders become the male mentor figure and gangs serve as a pseudo-family, offering a sense of community. Essentially, the identity of young men is shaped on the streets.
How can institutional rehabilitation address these external factors?
This was Warren’s answer when asked what role Drakenstein Correctional Facility’s boxing program plays in rehabilitation. After spending time with the men over three years, Warren noticed changes as offending individuals realigned their self-identity in an effort to improve.
So, does boxing establish identity, purpose, and community?
Self-Identity and Rehabilitation
Public opinion is shifting regarding rehabilitation and the efforts needed for reform - but it’s still got a long way to go.
While there’s not much research on the South African public’s perception of reform, international polls reveal that 85% of Americans support making rehabilitation the goal of the criminal justice system (rather than punishment).
In countries such as South Africa, where the mitigating factors are still prevalent upon release, rehabilitation needs to get to the root of the problem. While correctional facilities can’t eradicate poverty and the drug culture, they can help the incarcerated individuals form an identity outside of their external communities and negative influences.
Warren says, “I don’t believe change/rehabilitation comes without a shift in self-identity. We are the product of our environment and if the home life and community are hostile then the person tends to become anti-social. Shifting someone out of that conditioning takes helping that person establish a new identity, something that isn’t aligned with corrosive values of what they are used to.”
Through Unorthodox, Warren got a glimpse into the fundamental values shared by the boxing program at Drakenstein Correctional Facility, highlighting how self-identity directly corresponds with boxing as rehabilitation.
“I think in the case of self-identity and rehabilitation with men who come from backgrounds as they do, boxing empowers them with confidence and appeals to the image that they have of what a man should be - tough and formidable. But the underlying positive effects are that they are in a controlled environment - a gym. Hard training helps them regulate and deal with various emotional challenges that they might otherwise struggle with expressing. Boxing enables these men to feel empowered as well as gives them purpose.”
Through this realisation, Warren’s initial assumption of teaching boxing to violent youths being problematic took a sharp turn. This begs the question - how many rehabilitation efforts do we judge and keep at arm’s length when there is potential for positive change?
Practical Elements of Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation manifests differently for everyone.
In an institutional setting, there are a few structural fundamentals that lay the foundation for successful rehabilitative efforts. One of the biggest obstacles? Money!
In a country where the budget for education and healthcare is strained, rehabilitation and reintegration programs take a backseat (and are largely absent from the justice system). Yet a Penal Reform International report on global prison trends for 2020 revealed the budget allocated to each incarcerated individual per day in South Africa was EUR 25.83 (R433.33).
Allocating these funds appropriately toward effective rehabilitation programs could reduce recidivism and decrease the financial strain of correctional facilities on society as a whole.
As it stands, correctional facilities rely on private efforts to fund many rehabilitation programs. When Warren captured moments from the boxing program at Drakenstein Correctional Facility, all of the training equipment was paid for by private sponsors.
The boxing program was made available to those in medium or low-security sections who have permission to participate in sports. In this particular photograph, all incarcerated individuals are considered medium to low risk and run alongside non-incarcerated boxers outside of the facility.
Since Warren wrapped up his photography project, it’s suspected that the boxing program has ended. Explaining why he believes the project didn’t survive, he says, “The bureaucracy and lack of support that Mr Fourie (head of the boxing program) got from the administration made it challenging for him to grow the program and since he has left the facility I’m not sure if the program is even going any more.”
Despite its uncertain fate, the program changed the lives of multiple men. To continue, the program needs funding - both to operate in the facility and to bridge the gap for boxers leaving the prison and assist in the reintegration process.
Microcosm vs. Macrocosm
Perhaps you’ve wondered how the criminal justice system affects you as an individual. Maybe you choose to keep a superficial understanding (at the most).
Truthfully, we should all be advocating for effective rehabilitation efforts so that crime rates drop, recidivism is lowered and communities are strengthened.
In the US, one out of every seven prisoners is serving life, meaning that 6 out of 7 are released to reintegrate into society. In South Africa, only 12% of the total prison population are “lifers” meaning that 88% are released at some point.
Not only does the cost of life sentences adds a significant economic burden on society, but many of those who are released re-offend due to inadequate rehabilitation.
Without proper rehabilitation efforts, correctional facilities become a microcosm of the outside world - ruled by violence and fear. If we can shift these efforts in a different direction, then the macrocosm becomes significantly more positive.
We asked Warren how he believes that the Unorthodox project in Drakenstein reflects the world outside.
“In many ways, I feel this body of work represents the harsh reality for so many young men in South Africa. Establishing a self-identity comes from home and community influence and if those don’t carry healthy values then young men quite easily get caught up in anti-social and criminal behaviour. The work also reflects on the lingering effects of apartheid and oppression and a criminal justice system that fails to reintroduce offenders back into society.
From what I saw, boxing has the ability to create a positive self-identity. Boxing gyms facilitate the growth of positive role models and help develop strong mentorship relationships. The act of boxing - the physical practice - is a form of self-expression that might seem brutal and barbaric, but actually requires discipline and encourages respect.
The role of correctional facilities like Drakenstein should be to help offenders create new identities and values as well as empower them with the skills and knowledge to succeed once they are related. Offenders also need support once they leave the facilities and that’s what I noticed is lacking and leading to offenders going back to their old ways.”
“When I was 16 years old my friend was shot down next to me inside the car. The guy with the gun turned to shoot me but the gun jammed. Today, I shouldn’t be alive.”
Since this devastating experience, Linten has been incarcerated, rehabilitated, and was well on the way to starting a new life for himself – and then he was killed.
There are real stories behind these theories and insights on rehabilitation. The Unorthodox project sheds light on these stories, inspired after Warren met Linten.
Warren first crossed paths with Linten a year after he had been released from the correctional facility, and was the first boxer that Warren got to know. In a few words, Warren shares his friend’s story;
“After leaving Drakenstein Linten moved in with family in Belhar so that he wouldn’t be around his old gang area. He continued to train at a gym while looking for work and always wanted to compete in a boxing match. During our first shoot day together he told me that he had a child on the way.
Linten would go on to show the greatest commitment to his self-development and growth out of almost all the offenders I met. By the time his child was born he had found full-time work refurbishing old shipping containers into offices and small homes. His commitment to providing for his son and being a positive role model kept him away from gangs and over the years he covered his tattoos with various motifs. For example, on his right hand, he had a portrait of Muhammed Ali. He continued to train regularly and was in great shape.
But fate has a cruel way of dragging some people down. In late 2021, Linten was killed in cross-fire when he was visiting his cousins in his old neighbourhood in Elsies Rivier. The facts are still unclear to me if he was involved with any illicit activity or not.
Linten never got a chance to compete in a boxing match.”
“There was people that we looked up to that were older than us and they were gangsters. So I also wanted to be like these people. I feel I didn’t have love at home so I was searching for it in the wrong place.”
This is how the process of indoctrination begins for so many young men in South Africa.
Not all stories are as tragic as Linten’s story. Abdul-Aziz Kunert is another boxer from the Drakenstein Amateur Boxing Club and his path followed a different direction. As Warren spent time with Abdul-Aziz over the years, he was privy to the boxer’s training, competitions and eventual release from Drakenstein.
Since Abdul-Aziz’s release, he has pursued professional boxing and continues to train between Cape Town and Johannesburg. He also has a wife and three children.
But what about the rest of the incarcerated people that Warren met at Drakenstein?
“Over the years of working with offender boxers, only Linten and Abdul-Aziz continued their boxing aspirations once leaving correctional services. Mr Fourie tried to help offenders find gyms near to them when they left Drakenstein but without transport, financial support or a positive community of people to motivate them, most of the offender-boxers end up involved in criminal activities in some form or another.
I’ve heard that one promising amateur is now the head of a gang in his area and another offender who had changed his life while at Drakenstein was shot in the jaw at point-blank range while in a barber’s chair.”
In many cases, it takes more than a boxing program to break the bonds of South African drug culture. In other instances, the boxing program is an effective step in the right direction, but the rest of the path is overgrown with obstacles and challenges, causing people to backtrack and return to old ways.
These insights beg a much bigger question - where should the efforts of rehabilitation be focused? Should the priority be on rehabilitating incarcerated individuals or fixing the environment that contributed to their behaviour?
Final Thoughts on Rehabilitation and Unorthodox
To achieve effective rehabilitation, organisations need to address the root cause of criminal behaviour and not flinch from discomfort.
By building relationships with incarcerated individuals, Warren learned the value that the boxing program at Drakenstein Correctional Facility offered those behind bars — and it’s not only Warren who has come to advocate for sport as a rehabilitative effort.
Beloved Nelson Mandela also found value in boxing, writing the following words in his autobiography, “My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress.” His words continue, “After an evening workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again.”
The boxing program at Drakenstein Correctional Facility managed to change the lives of several men, but in most instances, it wasn’t enough to have an everlasting effect.
Warren attempts to summarise his three-year project in the following words.
“The reality for most of these young men is that there is no support after they leave correctional services. Facilities offer a sense of routine and opportunity in a controlled environment - say controlled very loosely because the balance between gangs and wardens is a thin line. If offenders choose to make changes then it’s a solitary life, but it is possible. The reality outside of the facility is dangerous and unpredictable and without any support, ex-offenders seldom have the grace to pursue newfound passions.”
These photographs and insights are just the tip of a very deep iceberg. The attitude toward incarcerated people attempting to redeem themselves is the very opposite of the ubuntu that so many South Africans pride themselves on - and the problem extends far beyond our wounded country.