Pistorius manslaughter verdict may mean 15 years in jail where rape and beatings are common

Oscar Pistorius has escaped a murder verdict, but still faces the possibility of a long prison sentence if he is convicted of culpable homicide today.

There is no minimum sentence for the South African equivalent of manslaughter, but such a conviction can carry up to 15 years in prison. Money and his status as South Africa’s best-known convict could protect Mr Pistorius from the worst abuse suffered by ordinary prisoners, but authorities would be under pressure not to give him special treatment.

Gang rape and savage beatings are a feature of daily life in South African jails, and whether Mr Pistorius would face these depends partly on which prison he is sent to, and what kind of cell. The 107-year-old Kgosi Mumpuru II Management Centre, better known in its former incarnation as the Pretoria Central Prison, is the jail closest to Mr Pistorius’s family, which is usually the deciding factor over location.

Mr Pistorius would have to report to the prison on a date given by Judge Masipa, at which point he would have his first meeting with the prison committee. His clothes and belongings would be taken away and he would be issued with a uniform: orange pyjamas printed all over with the word “Corrections”.

Disabled prisoners are a rarity in South African jails — official statistics say there are only 88 in the whole country — and few prisons are equipped for them. In most cases, disabled prisoners live permanently in the hospital ward.

Some severely disabled prisoners, including paraplegics in nappies, have to share overcrowded communal cells, sleeping three or more men to a bed.

“They’re a very small population. Given the crime situation in South Africa, prisoners’ rights in general don’t feature very high. Disabled prisoners suffer a double discrimination,” Lukas Muntingh, co-founder of an organisation that campaigns for prison reform in South Africa, said.

Mr Pistorius is legally entitled to keep his prosthetic legs, though this right may well be ignored.

“At night he might have to give them his [prosthetic] legs — potentially they could be a security risk,” Mr Muntingh said. “Anything can be. Toothbrushes are a security risk because they sharpen them and use them as a weapon.”

Mr Pistorius would not be entitled to keep the running blades that made him famous — they would be the first pair in a South African prison if he were allowed to keep them.

Assault is common in South African prisons — from 2012-13, there were more than 6,000 complaints of assault against inmates and more than 3,000 against officials, and both figures are rising sharply. Many incidents are rapes — rape is not distinguished from assault in the statistics.

Exercise is usually limited to one hour per day and Mr Pistorius’s diet would be very simple. He might be allowed to buy extra rations from the tuck shop using his prison account, which visitors can deposit money into — but normally only up to about £30 per month.

Every six months, he would see the committee, which can adjust his privileges according to behaviour. Exercise time, and rights over letters and visitors could all depend on how co-operative he is and how neatly he keeps his cell.

Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, so Mr Pistorius would be in a minority whatever prison he went to. His wealth, such as it is after paying his lawyer, Barry Roux’s fees, and visitors would be his lifelines. “I think what makes a difference are the resources available to an individual. It’s open to speculation, but money talks, whether one is able to buy food or wardens,” Mr Muntingh said.

Culpable homicide does not automatically mean a long time in jail, and Mr Pistorius now relies on Barry Roux to make arguments in mitigation. If he is jailed and the judge is convinced he is a suicide risk, he could return to Weskoppies, the psychiatric hospital where he spent a month during the trial.

Published in The Times, September 2014

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