Wealthy, white Oscar Pistorius unlikely to return to prison

Paralympian’s release from jail after just 10 months has sparked outrage in South Africa

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius will leave prison on Friday: the lenience afforded Pistorius has sparked outrage on many public forums and on chat shows. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius will leave prison on Friday: the lenience afforded Pistorius has sparked outrage on many public forums and on chat shows. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

 

For Oscar Pistorius, the five-year jail sentence he received for shooting dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of St Valentine’s morning, 2013, has turned into just 10 months behind bars.

This Friday, the Paralympic athlete, convicted last September of manslaughter and sentenced the following month, will swap Kgosi Mampuru II prison in Pretoria for his uncle’s palatial home in the city’s upmarket Waterkloof suburb. There he will serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. At first he will be able to leave the house only for probation-related work or engagements, but as time passes his conditions of confinement will likely be relaxed.

As well as having to abstain from drugs, alcohol and guns, he is likely to be instructed to undertake anger management courses as well as community service. In relation to the latter he has indicated he would like to work with children.

Since the correctional service’s parole board agreed in June to release the 28-year-old after serving just a fraction of his sentence, the debate around what it means under South African law to be rich and white, as opposed to black and poor, has taken centre stage.

Parole

This type of early release is afforded to offenders convicted of serious crimes who are thought not to be a danger to society, and because of their circumstances are at risk in dangerous and overcrowded prisons.

While the details behind the parole board’s decision have not been made public, Pistorius was granted early release despite the objections of Reeva Steenkamp’s parents.

In a letter to the board they said that although they forgave Pistorius for killing their daughter, “incarceration of 10 months for taking a life is simply not enough. We fear that this will not send out the proper message and serve as the deterrent it should.”

The lenience afforded Pistorius has sparked outrage on many public forums and on chat shows among people who believe his former status and wealthy background have worked in his favour.

According to the Wits Justice Project, a Johannesburg-based organisation that researches the country’s legal system, South Africans generally are far from equal before the eyes of the law.

Poor blacks are often subjected to wrongful arrests and convictions, lengthy delays in various legal proceedings that in some cases stretch into years, as well as poor legal representation from an overstretched legal aid board, it says. For instance, Legal Aid South Africa estimates that about 10,000 people have been awarded bail by the courts but cannot afford it, and as a result remain confined to the prison system despite its dangers.

In 2014 South Africa was ranked number one in Africa and ninth in the world in terms of the size of its prison population, which stands at about 157,000 inmates, according to the correctional services’ 2013/14 annual report. And of these, about 28 per cent were awaiting trial.

Indeed, it is the state of the overcrowded prison system and the government’s desire to bring it under control that may well have contributed to the decision to release Pistorius.

For its part, correctional services argues that all prisoners are treated equally by the parole and probation board. In addition, it says, the system is largely a success that does not endanger the public, as few people granted early release break their parole conditions.

Violations

But for Pistorius, early release from prison does not mean the nightmare is over, as on Monday the national prosecution authority said it will appeal against his manslaughter conviction at the supreme court of appeal in November. The state wants him convicted of murder, which under normal circumstances carries a much heavier sentence.

However, Judge Thokozile Masipa, who found Pistorius guilty of manslaughter and accepted the state could appeal the conviction, also ruled that the sentence she handed down could not be challenged.

So although Pistorius may eventually be convicted of murder, it appears that, unless he breaks his parole conditions, the former Paralympian’s time behind bars has come to an end.

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