Behind bars

Julie Rigby-Brink, Parklands

A life behind bars is hard for inmates. It is also really hard on those left behind.

My son served his sentence in a UK prison. Living in Cape Town, it broke my heart that I couldn’t afford to visit him. Writing letters didn’t help, since they took over a month to reach him or, sadly, often went missing in the postal system. Having no contact with him left me feeling lost, hurt and rejected. I could only imagine how my son felt 14 000km away, with no family or support system in place.

It was while faced with this harsh reality, I realised the importance of maintaining positive family relationships while serving a sentence and the importance of remaining in regular contact.

I came across EMAP (email a prisoner). This service is widely used in prisons in the UK, Netherlands and Australia. Why we aren’t we making use of this technology in South Africa with over 160 000 inmates serving a sentence in one of 242 correctional facilities?

A former inmate explained the financial burden on families due to the distance of prisons where the inmate is serving his sentence, transport difficulties, cost of travel and reduced services over weekends. In particular, awaiting trial visitation being on week days meant taking unpaid leave or absconding from work which they could ill afford to do. He also mentions that telephone calls aren’t private and inmates often feel pressured and unable to express themselves.

South Africa has the infrastructure. There is no cost to the Department of Correctional Services. An email can be sent from a smartphone, laptop or desktop as long as you can connect to the internet. Once registered on the email-a-prisoner website, it only takes only a few minutes to sign up and send your email which is delivered to via an encrypted PDF file to the designated correctional service email address.

Although inmates have no internet access while in custody, prisons offering the EMAP service receive the email on behalf of those incarcerated, print it out, put into the envelope provided and deliver during normal daily postal delivery rounds. The cost of sending an email is equivalent to a postage stamp irrespective of distance and, if selected, a reply service is available for the inmate to reply to sender which is sent directly to your inbox. This service could be an invaluable tool for use by legal professionals, correspondence courses and related organisations.

I urge the Department of Correctional Services to consider the role EMAP has in supporting and rebuilding family ties during incarceration.

Singabakho.Nxumalo, director of public education, stakeholder relations and media services, Department of Correctional Services, responds: The Department of Correctional Services will definitely welcome any idea brought forward and will test it against its system if that idea is sound enough. Corrections is a societal responsibility and the greater public is welcomed to make inputs and engage with us continuously in order to ensure that we have an effective corrections system.