It’s a sunny winter’s day at Avalon Cemetery, in Soweto, and there are rows of graves as far as the eye can see. For nearly 50 years, thousands have been buried here. We find 50-year old Dan Makete knee deep in a grave, digging out the dry soil for yet another burial.

“This is one of the few places I can ever find work. I get so comfortable, it’s like home,” he says.

Makete is one of thousands of ex-prisoners struggling. It is a sad story that began in 1995; the days of democracy and hope for South Africa were days of despair for him.

“Life was tough back then and I got involved in terrible things. I was arrested for armed robbery, house break-ins and hijacking,” he says.

The price was an 18-year jail term.

“Six of those years were suspended and because of good behavior, I served nine years [and] six months.”

But good behavior didn’t mean rehabilitation.

“Prison wasn’t correctional. I was in jail for a very long time but I didn’t get a skill or any kind of empowerment. We spent days doing nothing. The best you could do was work in the kitchen, dairy or maybe in the garden,” he says.

According to Makete, there was no counselling, meaning he went back to crime.

“When I got out for the second time, I had a different mind-set and wanted to make sure I don’t go back to crime. I have managed to stay clear of that but it is tough. I can’t find a decent job because I have no skill and employers don’t take people with criminal records.”

Makete takes any menial job that comes his way. One of them is cleaning and digging graves at the cemetery.

“If you aren’t strong enough you will go back to prison because there is nothing you can do. While I was in prison we fought, by hunger strike, to try convince them to empower us but there was never a response and if there was, they would promise but nothing would happen.”

Makete says he feels rehabilitated, but unskilled.

“I don’t see myself going back to prison because I have learned my lesson but the pain is I have been out of prison for years but there is a big stigma. You are used as an example. I have heard people say, ‘don’t be like that useless one’,” Makete says in a low voice.

‘It’s Better To Live In Hell Than A South African Prison’

With three children to support, life is tough, yet there is help at hand.

Founded in September 1910, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) specializes in helping people like Makete. It directly helps 12,000 to 15,000 people a year.

“This is a huge challenge because many of our ex-prisoners cannot find work because of the criminal record and sometimes it’s impossible. We were hoping to get enterprises up and running in order to employ ex-prisoners but it has not materialized yet,” says NICRO CEO, Soraya Solomon.

The vast majority of South African employers disqualify applicants with a criminal record. NICRO calls for employers to be more lenient.

“Aside from this practice being unconstitutional and a derogation of the right to equality and non-discrimination, a considerable part of the problem of crime in South Africa is that most offenders who wish to lead a crime-free life are prohibited from doing so because of their past actions. Having a criminal record for a less serious offence which occurred years ago should not be used to bar someone from gainful employment today,” she says.

Solomon recognizes that successful job applicants sometimes need to have no criminal record, especially for a particular type of offence, but says a balancing of rights is necessary.

For the system to work, she says rehabilitation must start as soon as the offender arrives in prison. The problem is there is overcrowding, few staff and low pay. It means a small percentage of prisoners have access to services to assist them in changing behavior. Upon release, most NGOs, like NICRO, do not have the money to help. In 2013, according to Solomon, about 23,000 inmates were released from South African correctional facilities while another 25,000 entered the system each month.

“Clearly the influx of prisoners will continue to be a problem and facilities will experience ever-increasing overcrowding and worsening prison conditions. We need to think beyond this present crisis in order to find sustainable solutions,” says Solomon.

Solomon and her team are attempting to find such solutions. They offer services for youth at risk, young people in conflict with the law, diversion services and non-custodial sentences served outside of prison that equip offenders to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. Additionally, NICRO has designed a comprehensive community-based initiative to manage and significantly reduce the number of remand detainees in correctional centers.

“NICRO’s remand solution has been designed to  reduce prison overcrowding and the processing time of offenders, prevent low-risk offenders from being sent to prison while on remand, provide much-needed and often overlooked key services, such as victim and trial support, preparation for incarceration, restorative justice interventions and professional comprehensive assessment to reduce recidivism,” Solomon explains.

Clinical psychologist and criminologist, Craig Traub, agrees with Solomon. He says the criminal justice system is more retributive than rehabilitational.

“Unfortunately prison systems, without bounds of stimulation, tend to be systems to improve criminality and criminal behavior in terms of skills, deception, and familiarity. Being a warden and nursing staff in prison is tremendously noble and dangerous. In that, increased employment packages for these workers would benefit the system as a whole,” says Traub.

From Prison Cell To Red Carpet

In the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services’ (JICS) 2015/2016 annual report, Inspecting Judge Johann van der Westhuizen found only 46% of centers visited had permanently employed educators. To make it worse, some centers in small rural areas did not offer any education, rehabilitation or vocational opportunities.

“We were informed that inmates who wish to further their education are transferred to centers with educational facilities. This, however, results in the inmates being transferred further away from their family. This in turn limits visits and the family interaction that is crucial for a successful reintegration into the community,” says Van der Westhuizen.

To make matters worse, inmates sentenced to 24 months or less do not take part in any programs but are rather considered for parole on completion of a quarter of their sentence in terms of section 73 (6) (a) of the Correctional Services Act.

It is a problem that lawyers can fix, but it comes at a high price. This means the poor, like Makete, suffer more while those who have done worse get off more lightly because they have money.

According to Traub, the poor sometimes suffer because forensic workers are overloaded; DNA/fingerprint measures aren’t always done in time, evidence goes missing, is stolen or sold, and oversight mechanisms to prevent police and government corruption are laughable.

“Again, those who are better educated and skilled have a higher likelihood of gaining employment, despite their record, than those who are not,” says Traub.

Traub says to better prepare prisoners for reinsertion into the society we need more halfway houses for prisoners, similar to those of addict rehabilitation. These would incorporate a gradual step-by-step facility, general reintroduction, skills-of-daily-living workshops and a person who can facilitate such a move.

If ex-offenders are able to find lawful employment, there are broad social benefits. According to Solomon, in a German study, the re-offending rate was reduced by 30%, and in the US by 20%. In South Africa, she says, the government would save about R7.3 million ($550,000) a month if 20% less of the 4,300 offenders released monthly did not re-offend.

“For that reason alone, reintegrating ex-offenders and supporting employment as a key part of that process is in everyone’s interest,” says Solomon.

The government may be trying, but not hard enough.

South Africa tried a restorative justice system, during the transition from apartheid South Africa to a free one, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Here, a criminal would return or give something the aggrieved requires or deserves, for example through a truth-telling testimony. Some would argue that this system played a role in rehabilitation.

Another problem is the country’s criminal record system. For example, in some cases diversion – a process to steer lower risk offenders away from the criminal justice system while still holding them accountable for their actions, by making the offender perform some sanction, such as attending a behavior change program or counselling, pay a fine or perform unpaid community service – doesn’t work.

“A person who is diverted does not have a criminal record. However, it has come to NICRO’s attention that despite being diverted, a number of people report that a criminal conviction has been recorded against their name. This is typically found out when a person applies for a job or a visa for travel,” says Solomon.

According to Solomon, this is the result of a clerical error between the court clerks and the South African Police Services (SAPS) and can be corrected by approaching the court clerk, where the diversion was ordered.

“There are many incidents where adults committed a less serious offence when they were younger and find later in life that they cannot obtain employment or educational bursaries. At the same time, other people who have committed similar offences are being diverted without any criminal record,” she says.

To add to that, South Africa’s criminal justice system allows for a criminal record to be expunged. The tricky part is the offender must wait 10 years before applying. This means although ex-prisoners, like Makete, have served their time, they may continue to pay for their crimes once released.

“In many of these cases, the period of 10 years of being unable to travel, obtain employment and, in many cases, being unable to study further, embody sanctions that are more severely punitive than the offence warrants,” says Solomon.

Without enough rehabilitation programs, South Africa has a cancerous crime problem. It is so bad that a First National Bank study found that crime was one of the reasons hundreds of South Africans were selling their homes and moving overseas.

It sees the cost of crime far outweighing the cost of rehabilitating criminals.