Swaziland looks set to become the first African country to introduce conjugal visits for prisoners, but critics say the policy is misguided.
Two years before completing his six-year sentence for three armed robberies, Thulani Simelane's live-in partner stopped visiting him at Matsapha Central Prison. Soon after, the 32-year-old inmate was informed by his friends that his partner, and mother of his eight-year-old daughter, had "moved on" and was pregnant with someone else's baby.
Simelane is one of many ex-offenders who return home to find their partners have left. "I was hurt, but I didn't blame her because the sentence was too long," Simelane tells Think Africa Press. "For four years, she had shown me a lot of support, visiting me at least twice a month ... I was prepared to marry her but things didn't work out because of my arrest and conviction."
Before his arrest in 2005, Simelane worked part-time as a labourer at one of Swaziland's sugar-cane plantations. Now that he is out of prison, he has to start from scratch and look for a new job without his family.
Such challenges stand in the way of efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders and re-absorb them into society, and as a result, Swaziland's Commissioner of Correctional Services Isaiah Mzuthini Ntshangase took radical decision to introduce conjugal visits for "well-behaved married inmates".
Swaziland will be the first African country and only 16th country worldwide to introduce conjugal visits for inmates. As of next year, eligible inmates will be able to enjoy private moments with their spouses in the comfort of two-bedroom houses that will be constructed at all prison facilities in the country.
Although the Commissioner of Correctional Services refused to reveal the exact amount this project will cost the cash-strapped government, he said it would only be a third of what an average two-bedroom house would cost because prison officers and inmates will do the construction.
Some such as Simelane, however, are not excited by the new 'conjugal rights' programme. Simelane believes it will create animosity between unmarried - and there ineligible - and married inmates. "Unmarried inmates will fight those enjoying conjugal visits because they will feel discriminated; most inmates lived with their partners but were unmarried", he explains.
While married inmates will get two hours for conjugal visits, other offenders only get ten minutes to talk to their visitors, a period Simelane believes is far too short. "We have always complained about the short period our visitors are allowed to spend with us", he says, "but until now, it has not been addressed. I feel this should be prioritised over conjugal visits."
Doing it right
Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko also generally supports the move but criticises its implicit "discrimination against unmarried inmates".
The Commissioner of Correctional Services, however, maintains that the new policy would not be discriminatory, arguing that married couples have a moral right to enjoy intercourse that unmarried couples do not.
"If we allow [conjugal] visits among unmarried couples, we run the risk of having people who go to the facility for an intimate moment with inmates they have no right to be with, which might end up creating a lot of problems for the department", insists Ntshangase. The commissioner also said gay people would not be entitled to conjugal visits because Swaziland does not recognise same sex relationships.
Desmond Maphanga, director of the Swaziland Association for Crime Prevention, Rehabilitation of Offenders (SACRO), seems to agree with Ntshangase. In Maphanga's view, the justification for granting conjugal visits to married inmates is to maintain family ties and prevent marriages from breaking up.
"Giving opportunity for sex to unmarried inmates would be promoting casual and out-of-marriage sex which sets a bad precedent and promotes promiscuity", he says. "Unmarried inmates have no matrimonial obligations to fulfil. It would merely be satisfying their sexual needs".
Citing the 2011 Human Rights Watch report, The Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) argues that granting conjugal visits to inmates could help reduce incidents of sexual violence - especially among young inmates.
"Sex is used in prison as a statement of power, as well as payment for services" Maureen Littlejohn, SWAGAA's Communications Officer, tells Think Africa Press. "If imprisoned individuals are allowed to attend to their sexual needs with a spouse, this could positively affect the rate of sexual violence in prison." Littlejohn also points out the failure of the Correctional Services to distribute condoms in prisons causing a setback in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
A helping hand
Pastor Mandla Mthethwa, executive director of the Christian NGO Prison Fellowship Swaziland, welcomes the idea of affording inmates conjugal visits as part of their rehabilitation programme, but also feels that Correctional Services has its priorities wrong.
"I think we should be concentrating on preventing people from going to prison rather than creating a comfortable home for them within the correctional facilities," he says.
A known advocate of non-custodial sentences for petty crimes and for juvenile offenders, Mthethwa says Swaziland should focus on passing the Correctional Services Bill 2011 first in order to address the issue of rehabilitating offenders in a more comprehensive way.
At present, Swaziland's Correctional Services uses the 1964 Prison Act which emphasises retribution as opposed to rehabilitation. Mthethwa believes the country should concentrate on restorative measures instead of putting people behind bars.
"For instance, we could refer drink drivers to Alcoholic Anonymous to help them deal with their alcoholism instead of putting them in prison - that does not help them," he says. "Some people re-offend because they fail to get the services that would help them deal with the issues that made them commit crime in the first place."
Simelane agrees. He says the reason he went into crime was because he was unemployed, and it is even more difficult for him to get a job now because most organisations do not hire ex-offenders. Conjugal visits might be nice, but they would do little to help this.