A day before his scheduled release date, Paralympic hero turned culpable homicide convict Oscar Pistorius was removed from prison in Pretoria under the cover of darkness. On Valentine’s Day 2013, he shot his partner Reeva Steenkamp dead at his home. Pistorius testified that he woke up in the middle of the night and heard noises coming from the bathroom. Instead of presuming that his girlfriend, who was no longer by his side, was using the bathroom, Pistorius claimed that he decided there must be an intruder, picked up the gun and delivered four deadly bullets through the door. Of course, the South African judicial system thought this was a likely tale, and that five years, which turned out to be twelve months, would be a suitable prison sentence.
As Criminal Law expert William Booth has claimed: ‘You don’t have to be a fantastic lawyer’ to view Pistorius’s actions as murder.
Pistorius was not treated like an ordinary suspect, or an ordinary inmate. His trial was stalked not just by the increasingly restricted South African media, but by the international media, too. He was South Africa’s Olympic hero, and he had money. Lots of money. The mansion in which he will serve the rest of his sentence on “house arrest” has three floors, a swimming pool, and is situated in an “old money” suburb, where properties often sell for around 20 million Rand (£1 million). During Pistorius’s relatively brief stint in prison, he resided in the hospital ward – separated from the rest of the prison where fatal assaults are common and fear is part of the everyday experience for staff and inmates. South Africa also has one of the highest population to inmate ratios in the world. It is clear that the paralympian’s treatment was the product of discrimination at the least, blunt corruption at worst: few other inmates are able to evade prison life so easily. And so Pistorius’s twelve-month sentence begins to look more and more like something given just to tick the ‘justice’ box, as a result of forces acting to his favour within the South African judicial system.
Corruption in South Africa is as widespread as the violence and paranoia which fills its prisons. Corrupt relationships and outright bribery have been uncovered in the South African political systems many times in recent years. The Pistorius case itself has involved several counts of evidence given by police which were then deemed impossible: Detective Botha, for example, testified that witnesses had heard screaming on the night of Steenkamp’s death, only to later admit that these witnesses were half a kilometre away.
But most of the fiddling undertaken within courts is of the perfectly legal kind, both in South Africa and in the UK. The best lawyers are naturally accessible only to the rich. In South Africa, poverty in the extreme is very real and visible. There is no chance for poor suspects to access legal professionals with skills to rival the rich. In our own country, with Legal Aid now gone for all but a tiny proportion of people, the justice-inhibiting gulf between the haves and the have-nots is only going to grow. Police forces within the UK can theoretically compete for funds with arrests; allegedly, journalists, such as those from the News of the World before 2011, can buy information from the police. All of these types of manipulation are the product of financial relations themselves. We cannot merely criticise South Africa: where there is money, there is power, and where there is power, there is always the potential for corruption. If the Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree cases taught the UK anything, it is surely that nobody should ever be allowed to reign above the law.
If you are a certain type of person, it would appear that it is easier for you than most to ‘get away with murder’, at times literally. Wealth is the largest influence, followed by factors such as race and gender. In many countries, uxoricide, or wife-killing, is often deemed worthy of a reduced sentence if a husband can prove that his wife was guilty of adultery. In others, men, and lower class ethnic minority men especially, face the harshest judgements from juries. The South African media was even condemned for focusing too much on the death of Reeva Steenkamp, calling it ‘missing white woman syndrome’. Two black South African women who were also killed by partners at the same time as Steenkamp received next to no media attention. More than half of murders go unsolved in South Africa, and the focus of media attention can be crucial in solving crimes.
So, it seems entirely possible that Oscar Pistorius should have received a murder conviction. As calls for harsher sentences on Pistorius gain momentum, we are forced to also question the purpose of this: the role of long and unpleasant prison sentences.
Despite Pistorius’s luxurious sentence, it remains highly evidenced that anger directed at the ‘luxuries’ prisoners may receive is largely misplaced. In the English-speaking world, sentences remain harsh, and a sense of the need to ‘punish’ rather than to rehabilitate is ever-present. This is especially true in the USA, where Barack Obama has recently begun to take action. England and Wales have a staggering imprisonment rate of 150 per 100,000 of the population. The prisons which house our inmates have been officially overcrowded since 1994, and 14,000 current inmates are serving indeterminate sentences. Still, the collective mentality which pushes for retribution persists. Almost three quarters of youth offenders who are locked up, reoffend within one year.
Some other countries in Europe have been developing a different stance for a while. In Austria’s Justizzentrum Leoben prison, convicts live in one-bed cells which each come with a television set and en suite. Halden prison in Norway has a two-bedroom house where inmates can enjoy overnight visits from family members. This may seem extreme to the British (or, indeed, to the South African) but Halden prison now has the lowest reoffending rate in Europe. Oscar Pistorius most likely hasn’t been rehabilitated very successfully, but, crucially, neither has the typical poor, often black person leaving a South African prison after a life sentence. If harsh sentences and conditions lead to reoffending, then perhaps it is time for a collective, global rethink.
The injustice of corruption, once laid bare, is staggering; but whether you are a poor, black youth in Los Angeles, or a rich, white superstar in South Africa, calls for harsher sentences are often misled. If we can harness the anger we feel at the shady business that surrounds the Pistorius case, and use it to criticise the racism, sexism, elitism and downright corruption that haunts the whole criminal justice system, then this will be far better for the quality of global justice systems, and societies as a whole.