As South Africa is poised to introduce new legislation dealing with child justice, it is an opportune time to consider how children in another Southern African country, Lesotho, are dealt with by the criminal justice system.
In 2001 Mamoqeli Malea, the first author of this article, carried out research into the treatment of child offenders in her home country of Lesotho. The project was undertaken as part of a practice placement at the Juvenile Training Centre, Maseru (hereinafter referred to as the JTC). This is the only such centre in Lesotho and services all ten districts of the country. The aim of the research was to find out more about what really happened in the institution with regard to living conditions, rehabilitation, family involvement and the discipline of the child 6ffenders in detention.
The researcher held semi-structured interviews with 19 children detained in the JTC. Lesotho criminal justice legislation defines a child as being under 18 and the children interviewed ranged in age from 12 to 18 years. Fourteen of the children were sentenced prisoners, the other five were on remand. Sixteen of the children were either charged with or convicted of theft or housebreaking with intent to steal (16 children). Of the other children one was charged with possession of an illegal firearm and the other two were charged with sexual offences against younger children.
Lesotho legislation adheres to the rules of United Nations instruments, which require that juveniles deprived of their liberty have the right to facilities and services that meet all the requirements of health and human dignity.
The Constitution of Lesotho indicates that every person in the country is entitled, irrespective of his or her race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, nation, or social origin, property, birth, or other status, to fundamental human rights and freedom. The Lesotho Prison Service itself explicitly stipulates, in its statement on the fundamental human rights of prisoners, that the constitutional rights should apply equally to prisoners, regardless of their crimes.
The living conditions in the JTC examined by the researcher include the standard of accommodation, hygiene, bedding and clothing, food, medical care and cell conditions. When children were asked about their health they indicated that they often became ill and pointed out coughing, fever and stomach ache as the most troubling illnesses. They attributed this to the fact that they lacked appropriate clothing. One of the children described the blankets and jerseys that they were provided with as "dilapidated". Children who are ill are sent to the institutional clinic, which has a doctor, a nurse and a pharmacist.
The children indicated that they are obliged to wear institutional uniforms, which they said tore quickly and offered little protection against the cold Lesotho winter. They said that shoes were not issued to them.
The children noted that although their cells were not in good condition they were clean, as they themselves clean them. They described their mattresses as torn, the walls as dirty and the floors as dilapidated. They also noted that they share cells with between seven and 15 other inmates. The children did not object to sharing cells, although some cells are overcrowded.
With regard to food, the children felt that it was poorly prepared and unappetising, and that their diet was not balanced. They eat three meals per day. For breakfast they eat bread and tea or soft porridge, and for lunch pap and beans, rice or samp, vegetables and either pork or beef on Sundays.
The inmates also indicated that the environment is not conducive to their health. The cells are not warm in winter, they bath with cold water and the toilet, bath and washing basin for dishes are located in the same place.
Education and rehabilitation
The children at the JTC indicated that they receive vocational training and basic literacy education. Programmes are not sensitive to their age, gender, prior criminal record or rehabilitative needs.
All of the children were attending school before their conviction. Their educational status ranged from standard two to form B (the equivalent of South African standard 9). They indicated that at primary level (standard one to standard seven) they go to class and sit for school-leaving examinations at government expense, but when they reach secondary school level their parents are required to pay. If their parents fail to pay then the children are trained in vocational programmes, which are free of charge.
The children indicated that members of their families are allowed to visit and are given some time to talk to them. These visits are neither private nor confidential, as prison guards accompany the children to meet their relatives. They said their parents are allowed to bring them basic necessities. Some children indicated that their parents were not able to visit them, as they were detained far from their homes and their relatives could not afford transport costs.
The JTC has rules and regulations necessary to administer the centre. There are administrative provisions guiding workers in the institution on dealing with the young people kept there. The warders are empowered to impose punishment when children break the institution's rules.
All the children indicated that they were harshly punished. The boys indicated that when they broke rules, they were whipped severely with sjamboks by more than one "caregiver". One inmate described it as being beaten "like dogs that have eaten eggs."
The girls reported that they engaged in negotiations to resolve conflicts arising among themselves. However, if they repeated a breach of the rules they were also whipped by one female "caregiver".
Examples of breaches of the rules that led to such punishment included children quarrelling among themselves, fighting or assaulting one another.
There are many strengths in the treatment of child offenders in Lesotho. The management of the Centre should be commended for their commitment to the education of the children.
However, the most disturbing finding of the research was the regular use of whipping with sjamboks as a disciplinary measure. This practice is contrary to Lesotho’s own universal correctional mission statement. This states that correctional services should contribute to the safety and prosperity of the society they serve through safe, secure and humane control of incarcerated offenders by actively assisting them to live law-abiding lives upon their return to their communities.
Lesotho’s intention to create a fair and just regime can be seen in the Prison Service mission statement and in the country’s commitment to international instruments. It is hoped that the same pressures that have led to child justice reform in South Africa will also be brought to bear on Lesotho, so that child offenders there can also benefit from international obligations being translated into domestic legislation.
This feature: Malea, M. & Stout, B. (2003). The treatment of children in custody in Lesotho. Article 40: The dynamics of youth justice and the convention of the rights of the child in South Africa. 5, (1). pp 10-11