#RuthInAmerica: A tale of two conferences

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM is a hot topic in the United States. Not only did pop stars such as Beyonce and Kendric Lamar take a vocal stance on the issue, presidential candidates from both the Republican and the Democratic party have spoken about the issue or have been prompted to do so by the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama was the first president in American history to actually set foot in a prison.

Watching these events unfold from South Africa, I felt the momentum for reform was huge, a historic opportunity to change the brutal reality of the American criminal justice system; a country with 5 % of the world’s population, but it imprisons 25 % of the world’s inmates. Around 2,3 million people are living behind bars, a staggering 500 % increase over the past thirty years.

Worryingly, the majority of locked up people have a brown or black skin. In federal prison, roughly a third of inmates are African American, whereas only 13 % of the general population is black.

Even though there is unprecedented bipartisan interest in reforming prisons and the laws that govern them, the question is if the various groups rallying for reform, are on the same page.

Two conferences I attended in New York and Washington revealed the gap that exists in discourse, outlook and analysis between the right and the left. Or, more precisely, between the political elite and grass roots organizers.

Angela Davis, renowned prison rights activist, Black Panther and university professor, kicked off  (her presentation starts in the last 30 minutes) the Beyond the Bars conference at Colombia University, in the heart of historical African American Harlem.

Davis observed that even Newt Gingrich has changed his tune and has come out and said that the system is broken and that Republicans must lead the way in fixing it. Criminal justice reform has become a hot political issue. But, according to Davis, we should take a step back and not repeat the mantra that the system is broken, as many politicians believe, because this approach leads to the assimilation and blunting of radical approaches to end mass incarceration. The system, said Davis, cares more about warehousing people who are considered superfluous and this system is saturated with racism.

She called on the movement to change not mass incarceration, but incarceration as we know. Because otherwise the political elite will still find ways of deciding who are the ‘really bad people’ and who are not.

Several days later, I attended a different conference on criminal justice reform in the capital. The orthodox Jewish policy institute Aleph brought together speakers and thinkers from across the spectrum; from researchers working for the Koch brothers, to policy specialists with conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, to lawyers working for the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU). They shared panels and exchanged thoughts about how to change the system.

Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Institute opened one panel session by quoting an African proverb: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion”. She was referring to the unique bipartisan coalition that has sponsored several criminal justice reform bills in the Congress and Senate.

If the bipartisan coalition is a tangle of spider webs, then the lion must be mass incarceration. Iowa Republican Senator Grassley, who spoke at the conference, was confident the king of the jungle had been tamed. He spoke about the The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which passed the Senate and now awaits approval by Congress, as the ‘biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.’

The bill sets out to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for minor non-violent crimes. Its main selling point in terms of reducing mass incarceration is that mandatory minimum sentences are reduced for low level, non-violent offences. This should bring down the number of people who end up in jail, sometimes for years, for possession of marijuana, for example.

While speakers at both conferences spoke of a watershed moment in time, of stars seemingly aligning to make criminal justice reform happen, they nonetheless didn’t seem on the same page or even in the same book. The racial bias of the criminal justice system, for example, was not mentioned once during the Aleph conference, race was the proverbial elephant – or should I say lion – in the room. Any mention of Grassley’s sentencing bill, or the further reaching Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act— the SAFE Justice Act – during the Beyond the bars meeting was met with a derisive huff.

If the legislative proposals make it through both houses, in an election year, with a chilling standoff brewing over the Supreme Court of Appeals nomination, then mass incarceration will most likely be reduced. It remains to be seen if the racial bias of the criminal justice system – most blatantly expressed in the disproportionate number of people of colour behind bars – will be rooted out.  Because if the lion in the room is not mentioned or tamed, it will continue to roam free.





The human cost of judicial error

[L-R] Advocate Donrich Jordaan, Boswell Mhlongo and Mavis Sideko

On the first anniversary of his release from Kgosi Mampuru (Pretoria Central prison), the wrongfully convicted former inmate says he’s still recovering from the 13 years he spent behind bars for a crime he did not commit: “It’s not easy to regain everything I lost. There’s a stigma attached to spending time in prison. People don’t trust you, they fear you. The hurt is still there. It’ll probably stay with me forever.”

Though he protested his innocence from the time of his arrest, there were many occasions a despondent Mhlongo believed suicide was his best option. “I spent 23 hours alone in my cell every day for most of the time I was in prison and had plenty of time to plan. I decided to swap my phone cards for Lepinax pills which were given to aggressive inmates to calm them. I accumulated them inside my radio in order to overdose.”

Mhlongo’s first and second attempts to end his life failed and a third landed him in a coma. “I woke up in Kalafong hospital six months later with tubes everywhere. The doctors wanted to switch off those machines but my family refused. I felt bad when I woke up. I’d spent five years unsuccessfully trying to get my trial transcripts which I needed to appeal my case and could see no reason to live. I asked myself over and over why I’d been locked away for life. I couldn’t find any answers….”


The latest offering from senior WJP journalist Carolyn Raphaely tells the story of Boswell Mhlongo who spent 13 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Read the full piece as it appeared in both The Daily Maverick and The Star.


Related reading:



Filth, disease, sex and violence mar women’s lives behind bars

blog post pic

Most of the female inmates interviewed in Hard Times, a 2012 research report on women prisoners in Pollsmoor produced by the University of Cape Town’s gender, health and justice unit, had experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse growing up.

Basing their findings on interviews with 53 inmates, the authors note that “the correctional system becomes an extension of the abusive domestic context, where the features of domestic violence are recreated through prison controls and other behaviours… replicating a de facto domestic violence relationship.”

Dirty cells and substandard sanitation, especially in the awaiting trial section, also traumatise the women. “Toilets and showers were incredibly dirty, always blocked,” Melanie remembers.

In the latest piece by senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins, female inmates from Cape Town’s notorious Pollsmoor prison detail their experiences behind bars. From appalling living conditions and delayed access to healthcare services to sexual abuse and prohibitive regulations separating them from their children, female inmates endure much trauma.

Download the PDF of Ruth’s article as it appeared in the print edition of this week’s Mail and Guardian here

Related links:



Grandfather seeks answers to grandson’s death

Senior Journalist Ruth Hopkins’ latest piece tells the devastating story of one grandfather’s search for answers to his grandson’s suspicious death in Johannesburg’s Leeuwkop Prison.

On 16 August last year, Mabuti Shabalala, an 83-year old Thembisa man who everyone simply refers to as ‘Mkhulu’ (grandfather in isiZulu), called his granddaughter Cynthia. “I said to her, I have some bad news, Cynthia. I just got a phone call and they told me Mmeli is dead. She fell right here, I had to pick her up.”

Mmeli Shabalala, Mkhulu’s grandson and Cynthia’s brother, was incarcerated at Leeuwkop prison, in Johannesburg, following a conviction for robbery. Mkhulu, who raised Mmeli from the day he was born, went to visit the prison the same day. “The sister there told me that he had a bucket and was throwing water and then he slipped and fell. But then they showed me the place. I don’t believe that he would have died there. The cell is too small to slip and fall. He would have fallen on a bed.”

Not only did the slip and fall theory seem unlikely, there were also differing versions of events. The government mortuary told the grandfather that Mmeli was polishing the floor with a rag under his feet when he slipped and fell, there was no mention of a bucket and throwing water. When Mkhulu asked a fellow inmate what had happened, he said Mmeli was alone and coughed and fell. “So, that’s three different stories that they told me,” Mkhulu concludes.

The video above was shot, edited and produced by Ruth, with sound engineering by Unathi Mahlati. A complete write-up of the story can be viewed here on The Daily Vox.

Related links:

WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins wins inaugural Sylvester Stein Fellowship



Congratulations to Ruth Hopkins, Senior Journalist at the Wits Justice Project, who was awarded the Sylvester Stein Fellowship for 2016.

Ruth will be spending two and a half months in the United States, visiting the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems.

More specifically, Ruth will be looking at the role of race and class in mass incarcerations and how popular dissent against systematic injustice can eventually lead to reform.

“Through my investigation in the US, I hope to find out what South Africa’s tipping point is,” says Ruth, “what encourages mass mobilisation around issues of (mass) incarceration, race and poverty, like we have seen in the US, following Ferguson, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and others? What will it take in South Africa to forge similar dissent in public discourse that will eventually translate in much needed reform of the system?”

We are so proud of Ruth, who is the inaugural recipient of the award, and are excited to engage with the important content she’ll be producing.

To follow Ruth’s investigation over the next few months visit our blog where we’ll be posting weekly updates tracking her journey.

The Fellowship is a new award presented by the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust in memoriam of author, journalist and anti-apartheid activist Sylvester Stein.  Learn more about the award, and Ruth’s research focus, here.

The WJP is hiring!


Do you dream of justice?

Are you interested in changing the world, one missing transcript at a time?

Does the thought exposing miscarriages of justice make your heart beat a little faster?

Yes? Then the Wits Justice Project is for you!

We’re looking for a new legal intern to join our dynamic and hard-working team of journalists.

Position: Legal Intern (Administrative)
Remuneration: Competitive monthly stipend
Education level: Degree
Type: 6-month contract with option to renew once
Commence: ASAP

– A Bachelor’s degree, preferably in law.
– A keen interest in those affected by miscarriages of justice.
– Understanding of efficient legal administration and support – Ability to create and maintain filing and administration systems – Ability to multi-task and work to deadlines – Willingness to understand the NGO sector – Contactable references.
– Familiar with legal judgments and criminal law.

Job Description

As an administrative legal intern you will be required to:
– Handle incoming correspondence – sorting, filing and responding to inmate requests.
– Take charge of the Missing Transcripts Project.
– Work with in house counsel on wrongful convictions investigations.
– Build a relationship with working partners, lawyers and journalists.
– Create new office systems for data management and access.
– Collate information in a systematic format.
– Draft summary reports for lawyer.
– To assist the team with a variety of projects including organising events.
– Work as a member of a small, hard-working, team which is passionate about human rights.

Send a motivation letter and full CV before 03 March 2016, including three referees, to Simoniah.mashangoane@wits.ac.za


WJP journalist wins 2016 Nieman Fellowship

Paul McNally with CJN paralegal journalists during a media training workshop hosted at Wits Journalism in November 2015.

Congratulations to Paul McNally, radio journalist at the Wits Justice Project and Wits Radio Academy, and founder of the Citizen Justice Network (CJN), who was selected as a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University for 2016.

The fellowship, which will run for six week later this year, provides short term research opportunities to journalists working on innovative and original projects committed to fostering progress in the field of international journalism.

Paul will be developing an online tool which will function as a virtual newsroom. The tool speaks directly to his work with South African paralegal journalists at the Citizen Justice Network, who are often separated by large distances. The tool is intended to bridge the gap between community journalists thus enabling them to conduct better investigations.

“One of the challenges CJN faces is distance between the different offices, but also how much information and meat for stories can be lost in the process of creating a story remotely,” says Paul, “The tool will help with the process of being a reporter but allow the CJN community to connect and importantly share and search each other’s journalism experiences.”

We are so proud of Paul who is one of only eight visiting fellows this year and whose idea was chosen from an impressive pool of over 300 applicants, including those focused on programming, research, financial strategies and design.

Learn more about the great work the Citizen Justice Network does training community paralegals to be radio journalists here.

Read more about the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship here.