Public buildings: The right to safety and dignity

(Port Elizabeth) – The recent multi-million-rand revamp of the Bethelsdorp Police Station and murders of five police officers at the Ngcobo South African Police Service (SAPS) branch have, once again, placed the state and security of public buildings firmly in the spotlight.

 

COMMUNITY POLICING: The new-look Bethelsdorp police station in Port Elizabeth has been revamped by architecture firm SVA to provide a more community-oriented service. A stand-out feature is an autonomous centre devoted to assisting victims of crime, which includes a children’s playroom.

 

There are those who would argue against the value of introducing an element of humaneness and dignity into harsh and unforgiving institutions such as police stations and prisons. Crime is crime, and somebody must pay.

But while the “innocent until proven guilty’” catchphrase will always be bandied about, there is another largely undebated side to the argument – that of the safety of those caught up, either willingly or not, in the harsh realities of life at some government institutions.

Anyone entering a public facility, be it a police station, a prison or even a school, has the basic right to human dignity. Feeling safe is part of that basic right.

It is well documented that conditions at many unrenovated prisons in South Africa are poor. Again, people would argue: “So what?” But there are aspects to this difficult but necessary part of life that need to be discussed.

Firstly, there’s the problem of overcrowding, which in itself raises safety questions. What if a fire breaks out? Has ample provision been made for everyone to get out? What about the safety of the disabled? Are there facilities which cater to their needs?

And then there is the issue of the safety of staff, particularly those working late at night. Is enough being done to protect them?

With the Ngcobo tragedy still fresh in our minds, we need to remember that the safety of our police officers is paramount. These are people who regularly put their lives on the line for us. In return, we need to ensure that they work in not only a safe environment but also under humane conditions. Policemen have the right to human dignity. In addition to notions of safety and dignity are other values, such as comfort, and with this often comes increased sense of ownership and pride.

It also needs to be borne in mind, when dealing with public and government buildings, that the human element encompasses all those involved in the process, which includes the staff in the charge office, the detectives and, yes, also the criminals.

A step in the right direction comes with the official handing over of the renovated Bethelsdorp Police Station, a living example of the ever-changing demands placed on all those involved. The team of architects who translated the client’s needs into reality felt a sense of responsibility to ensure the building had a positive impact on the surrounding community.

Looking to the future, companies contracted for the development of state facilities need to ensure, from the outset of the planning process, that plenty of forethought goes into the design, and then the construction and renovation of state facilities.

This includes accepting that there needs to be a more sensitised approach in dealing with state buildings and the communities within which they are situated. This also extends to the vulnerable victims of crime, which is again, where the Bethelsdorp Police Station comes into its own.

Dignity is vital to the vulnerable – perhaps children on their own, seeking help after being abused. Victims of child and gender abuse do not need to be lumped into a mass of other issues, but handled with care and privacy.

The Bethelsdorp station’s new Victim Support Centre, where there are bright waiting rooms, private interview rooms and even thoughtfully added showers, gives respect to the end-user.

This emerging sense of a need for the human touch also extends to the North End Prison, which boasts a completely separate maternity facility with a small, Astroturf garden where children born into incarceration can enjoy some fresh air.

These children also have the basic right to dignity – after all, they have not committed a crime.

While there may be no argument for the development of five-star facilities found in other societies such as Sweden, where prisoners are given extensive privileges including weekends at home, there is an argument to be made for introducing more humane environments into otherwise austere and run-down facilities.

While it is important to remember that no crime can go unpunished, state buildings such as police stations and prisons do serve a particular purpose. They however also possess the ability to positively impact the users and their surrounding communities.

Bryan Wintermeyer is an executive in the Port Elizabeth office of SVA International, the architectural firm behind the Bethelsdorp Police Station renovations.


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