Original Research

The historical development of prisons in South Africa: A penological perspective

S. Singh
New Contree | Vol 50 | a438 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/nc.v50i0.438 | © 2024 S. Singh | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 29 February 2024 | Published: 30 November 2005

About the author(s)

S. Singh, Department of History, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

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President Nelson Mandela commented during his time of incarceration1 “Prison not only robs you of your freedom, it attempts to take away your identity. It is by definition a purely authoritarian state that tolerates no independence and individuality. As a freedom fighter and as a man, one must fight against the prison’s attempt to rob one of these qualities.” Historically, the characteristic feature of the development of South African prisons was its resemblance to the mine compound. Such compounds housed mine workers, of whom many were convicts supplied by the prison system. Even by 2006 these remnants of the past are distinct in the large communal cells crammed with rows of beds in which prisoners are housed. It is currently assumed that institutional confinement has always been employed as the usual method of dealing with offenders throughout history. This has been assumed, almost universally, because presently offenders are confined within penal institutions, such as, prisons, reformatories, reform schools and jails. However, the use of institutions for the extended confinement of offenders, as the prevailing method of punishment, is a relatively contemporary innovation and was primarily a product of American influences. The use of the prison as an institution for the detention of offenders for the period of their sentence is approximately two hundred and fifty years old. The suffering and anguish of living conditions to which inmates are subjected in overflowing prisons cannot be calculated in figures and graphs. The consequences of housing too many people in too little space means that inmates are doubled-bunked in small cells designed for one, or forced to sleep on mattresses in unheated prison gyms, temporary housing, hallways, or basements. In this article a review of the origin and development of prisons in South Africa will be given. A historical look into the Department of Correctional Services in South Africa and the change in direction of the penal system during the past century will also be reviewed. An assessment of the overcrowding of penitentiaries over the decades together with the problems experienced will be discussed.


prisons; South Africa; penological perspective'; Department of Correctional Services in South Africa


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Crossref Citations

1. Prison and Democracy: Lessons Learned and Not Learned, from 1989 to 2009
Fran Buntman
International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society  year: 2009  
doi: 10.1007/s10767-009-9074-8