Young in Prison: One small step out of South Africa’s hellish jails
South Africa’s overcrowded prisons have been described as “universities of crime”. But for the staff and participants at Young in Prison, starting again is just what they do. Every day, until they get it right. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
The exhibition will be running this week at 6 Spin Street from Monday – Thursday. The official opening event is on Tuesday.
If you pass 6 Spin Street next week, you’ll see some artworks that look a little like they might belong in a graphic novel. But if you look twice, you’ll notice something a bit different: some styles you haven’t quite seen before, some scenes you don’t quite recognise.
You’ll be looking at Kulcha, the latest exhibition by Kollektivo Illuminoso Fresco, a.k.a. KIF, the artists’ collective belonging toYoung in Prison. YiP, which has been running for thirteen years and is currently funded by the EU, works with youth – mostly men – aged 14 – 25, who have been incarcerated. It incorporates both pre- and post-release programmes, relying on sport, art and life skills to assist participants with rebuilding their lives.
Luntu Vumazonke and Siphamandla Poswa, both experienced exhibitors, will show new illustrative work at Kulcha, and will be joined by two new artists: Loyiso Botha and Xolisa Pezisa.
All programme members participate in the production of an annual comic book called InsideOut, says Programme Manager Clinton Osbourn. “Everyone has to do it,” he says. “It’s part of the programme. The people who have really enjoyed the process and really got into it can choose if they want to be part of the exhibition.
“You are just creating a body of work. We [YiP] get the money that covers framing costs, and everything else goes directly to the artist.” At the previous exhibition, every last work was sold on the opening night.
Vumazonke was a participant in the first InsideOut comic book. On the strength of his work there, he was invited to participate in a group exhibition – his first of three. “Since then, he has exhibited at the Erdman Contemporary with Zapiro and other well-established artists,” says Osbourn. Vumazonke was published in Graflit and in Zanele Muholi’s Faces & Phases 2006 – 2014.
“He draws township scenes,” says Osbourn. “People just love his style because it’s so original.”
KIF is an artists’ collective; it was founded at the beginning of 2014. The comic books tell their stories – their circumstances, experiences, the things they have not been able to find words for. It’s usually easier for the artists to tell the stories of how they got to prison; harder are the stories of their early lives and personal struggles. It took time, for instance, for an artist in the first comic book to tell the story of the first five years of his life, which ended with the death of his mother.
“It’s really about getting the artists to become more self-aware and show them what they can do. There’s a lot of therapeutic process in making the comic book, but it also shows them that they can do something they didn’t believe they could. We have done three now and not one single person has dropped out of the process. We have also made a music video,” says Osbourn.
As a group, they have exhibited at Youngblood, Arts Alive and Erdmann Contemporary, and have also created stickers and T-shirts.
When Daily Maverick visited YiP, they were on their way to Michaelis art school, where they were working on a collaborative performance piece with a postgraduate student. The student, Osbourn says, has been asking the university to provide equal credit to the collective, but the university has expressed concern because the collective’s members are not registered.
“It’s been a little bit way out,” says Osbourn. “But we have all loved that process.”
“It is a long story, my sister,” Lazola Sikhutshwa says, a little heavily.
“If I had had good representation, I would not have gone to prison.”
Sikhutshwa is the first graduate of Young in Prison’s pre- or post-release programmes to have been permanently employed by the organisation. YiP has active branches in five countries – South Africa, the Netherlands, Surinam, Columbia and Malawi – so it’s not a shabby achievement.
Sikhutshwa entered an adult prison at fifteen, on 8 March 2003. It would be ten years before he would get out.
He doesn’t wish to broadcast what he went to prison for, although he says his involvement in the crime was very limited. He is trying to move on, and his reticence is understandable. But, he says, it’s also a mark of respect to the two friends he went to prison with. “Because of the bond we had, I vowed that we would die for each other. I am your brother and you are my brother. I told them straight: ‘Listen, you know the facts, but I won’t disclose. There are many things that I did that you know and did not disclose.” At the time of his arrest, he says, he and his friends were already in so much trouble that which particular crime which particular friend committed at which time was almost moot.
“So I stayed,” he says. “I was awaiting trial for three years, with no bail.”
This bond grew out of years of emotional neglect, he explains. “There was a boundary between me and my family. I was introverted back then. I did not know how to express how I felt in words. My parents did not know why I was so quiet at home and then they heard reports of what I was doing, they did not understand. I became closer to the bad people in the street, and they became my primary friends. Every time I did something bad they complimented me as a big tough man. They became my brothers, my blood. Sometimes I slept a month out of the house. Surviving, you see.”
Sikhutshwa was in Pollsmoor and Drakenstein, and before that a number of youth facilities, which he escaped. He was arrested as a teenager, but was held awaiting trial until shortly after his eighteenth birthday. “I was sentenced as an adult,” he says. “I believe that was done on purpose. They knew that they were raising me.”
Sikhutshwa demonstrates some ambivalence about his sentence. “It was fair and it wasn’t,” he says. “Prison was a blessing in disguise, my sister. I was so naughty. I was into drugs, alcohol. I had a child at 15. I was arrested on 8 March and my daughter was born on 8 April. I did a lot of things before that. I was in Pollsmoor in 2002 but the charges were dropped. I was in Bonnietown. I escaped there a lot of times. My life was full of troubles. When I was arrested, it was like putting a coal in water. Prison turned me into the person I am today. In order for gold to be shining and beautiful, it must go through fire. For a pencil to write it must be sharpened. The tougher the struggle, the sweeter the victory.”
The struggle for Sikhutshwa began years before release. He was reading the Mail & Guardian when he spotted then-Young in Prison director Tarisai Mchuchu. “This lady was one of the top 200 women in South Africa making a difference. I tore it out because it was the only NGO making a difference to my situation. I put it in my hardcover book so that one day when I was released I could come and seek help.”
Sikhutshwa had not been a slouch behind bars. He had kept up with the world outside, and studied business management. “I told my cellmates: Listen, brothers, this will not determine my future. That statement made me what I am today,” he says.
Now, he is acutely aware of the dangers of rage; the programme taught him, above all, to manage his emotions. “I was so cautious about anger when I came out,” he says. “I knew the family problems that cause people to be rebellious and in trouble, when they go out of prison those problems are still there. Or maybe they are worse. So I knew I am not going to let any situation shape me. As before I chose my own family, even now, I am still going to do the same thing – but in a positive way. If there is a problem at home, I am going to go to people that understand me.
“In the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon says better a friend that is close than a brother that is far.”
Today, he has repaired relationships with his family; he also has a tight bond with his daughter, with whom he retained regular contact throughout his incarceration. She stays with him every afternoon after school, as well as weekends and holidays.
When he joined YiP, he immediately made a good impression on Osbourn, who calls him a “brilliant facilitator”, and was grateful for his background in business management. Initially, Sikhutshwa went through the programme and was a youth leader on a stipend, but the organisation quickly realised he should be hired permanently.
In October, Sikhutshwa travelled to the Netherlands to give motivational talks to prisoners there.
“It was successful,” he says.
“But the general population in Holland are white people. What’s funny is that most of the people in prison are African. One of the inmates asked me, ‘Do you get white people in your country in prison?’ I said no, because that was my honest answer. Maybe you get one out of one thousand**. He asked me: What does that tell you; are we the only criminals?’
“I said of course there are many different views. The way I have seen it, it is because of the system, which favours people that are moneyed… And it is not only white people that are favoured, but black people with power. You will never get a surname of Zuma, Mandela or Sisulu in prison.”
He dished out some tough love, too. “I made them understand that compared to the conditions in our prisons, they are so privileged. They sleep one in a room. They have got pianos. They have got cappuccino machines! I made them understand if I can rehabilitate in these circumstances it is also possible for them to come out as good people. If they don’t have family that wants them, the government gives them a place to stay and a grant. It is a good system, but it is spoiling them.”
At this point, Sikhutshwa becomes very still, then changes the subject. “In terms of the work here, I am learning new things,” he says quietly.
“I think I have found a purpose in life. I love the job I am doing, but I wish I could be more effective.”
It’s no secret that conditions in South African prisons are often abysmal. For at-risk youth, the battle may seem impossible to win.
“I often hear participants tell me that, particularly in the Western Cape, they felt that they had two options: they could be a gangster or a church boy, and church boys were boring,” Osbourn says.
Once an adolescent has entered a youth facility, the chances that they will rehabilitate before adulthood are slim. “Although these things are hard to measure, the statistics that exist suggest that they are not effective,” Osbourn says. “As many as 95% of young men who commit their first crime will offend again. This pattern only peters off when they get older.” There is very little data available on the effectiveness of creative practices in rehabilitation, such as those YiP uses; Osbourn’s own postgraduate study may go some way to resolving this.
Those who have been arrested, particularly young offenders, are particularly vulnerable. Carolyn Raphaely, journalist at the Wits Justice Project, told Daily Maverick that a key risk area for youth firstly lay in police cells, where there was often inadequate protection, and secondly in overcrowding, particularly in awaiting trial areas.
“Ironically, awaiting trial detainees are theoretically innocent, but conditions are way worse for them than for sentenced offenders,” she said. “It is more overcrowded, and there is no rehabilitation, because if you are innocent you don’t need rehabilitation. Conditions in many prisons are appalling, and overcrowding can be at a level of over 200% – with all the concomitant problems such as sexual violence, TB, HIV et cetera.
In prisons like Pollsmoor, which is extremely overcrowded, in some cells there may even be two bunks pushed together for as many as eleven or twelve people, Raphaely says. “If there’s a young boy sleeping there, he’s a target. Prison is really a pretty shocking situation for a child.”
There is not a great deal of reliable recent data available on children in prisons. Sikhutshwa’s case is a fairly typical example of what could occur before the passing of the Child Justice Act – however, a damning 2013 report by Professor Lukas Muntingh and Clare Ballard, entitled Children in Prison in South Africa, painted a grim picture of what was occurring more recently with juveniles in South African prisons. Many children were locked up for 23 daily, being denied access to psychologists and social workers. Juveniles are detained for 120 days awaiting trial, and having to buy phone cards to talk to their families. They were given less than the international standard required amount of floor space, and 85% of prison officials had no training in working with children, while 39% of child prisoners received no visits for three months. Very few children were told of prison rules or regulations or their rights.
Sasha Gear, Programme Director at Just Detention International South Africa, told Daily Maverick that sexual abuse was also a serious problem for prisoners of all ages, but that youth were at high risk. “There are quite a lot of people between the ages of 21 and 25 who are held in adult prisons. There are commonalities between juvenile centres and adult prisons in terms of overcrowding and the huge problem of understaffing.
“The practice of lockup is particularly disturbing. From two to three pm, when the last meal is served, until they go to sleep at night, there is very little supervision. You are largely left to the mercy of your cell section.” Sometimes, Gear says, there may be as many as over a thousand prisoners to one staff member. If something goes wrong, inmates may try to raise an alarm by banging on the doors or windows, but it may take as long as an hour for the warder to go outside and access keys. “Staff members don’t have immediate access,” she says.
The conditions for staff are also overwhelming. The ratio in a section is four to five staff members to around a thousand prisoners, but absenteeism, and staff being called to other duties such as escorting a prisoner to hospital or visits, means that numbers left for supervision are minimal, says Gear. “There are opportunities for young people to participate in programmes, but possibilities are not usually hugely accessible,” she says.
The theory, in other words, is very different to the practice.
She echoes Raphaely’s concerns that in awaiting trial facilities, the problems are worse: inmates don’t have the same access to social workers and psychologists and don’t have the opportunities to go to school or participate in programmes. Infrastructure is often poor; phones may be broken so access will be limited. In these facilities, Gear says, its’ really “the university of crime”. Often, this is where prisoners – even innocent ones – are recruited into prison gangs. Here, the crime you have committed, or not committed, will often determine how you are classified in the gang. If you are less violent, very young, or less strong, you are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
“It’s very terrifying, and for young people it’s particularly overwhelming,” she says. “Even those who do not have the intention to be violent may find that violence is a survival mechanism.”
The total prison population, according to Nicro in 2014, was over 162,000; for this population, there were around 300 social workers and just over 60 psychologists. Although it is illegal to detain children under 18 in adult prisons, exceptions are sometimes made. Raphaely gave Daily Maverick a rough estimate of how many children were currently in prison; we were unable to verify this number independently, however. According to Nicro, nearly 900 children under 18 are being held at various unnamed facilities (largely specialised youth centres) across the country; over 53,000 in the 18 – 25 bracket are being held in adult prisons.
IV. The path to hell is paved with good intentions
The way Sikhutshwa explains it, reflection is the first step. “They [participants] do it through art, thinking deeply about their lives, how they came to be the people they were before they were arrested.
“They often come out [of prison] with the assurance that they have rehabilitated, only to find out three or four years down the line that they are committing crimes again, because they did not actually reflect what made them to be the person they were. Often they just thought to themselves: ‘I do not want to be in prison again, I’ll just lead a positive life.’”
The intention, he stresses, is not enough.
Skeptics might, at this point, be thinking the programme is a soft option; why give those with a criminal record a second chance when so many with clean records are struggling?
But Osbourn and Sikhutshwa are adamant: they don’t hand opportunity over on a plate. The participants fight for success before they are even accepted into the programme. “We first have to check if that person is a reliable person. We cannot prepare them for a job if they do not have what is required of the working industry,” says Sikhutshwa.
For him, the desire to succeed was unshakeable.
“Before I joined, I told myself that most of my friends that were friends back then are dead; some are serving many years. I had already wasted all my teen years behind bars.” He participated in social awareness classes, critical thinking classes, debates, life skills programmes, going to camps, computer skills classes and more.
“It boosted my confidence, you see,” he says. “In some cases they would give participants a chance to facilitate a workshop. They would come up with their own plan on how the workshop would be run. I used to love that. That is where I noticed this is what I am good at.”
Osbourn, who is working on his M.A. degree in social work while serving at YiP, explains that this is one of the key theories of preventing recidivism: a support system in which an individual’s self-belief can take root.
“This kind of social support is one of the key theories of desistance,” he says. “Self-belief has to be supported by other people believing in you. When someone else comes along and sees potential in you, a person can think ‘Maybe I can be something else, because this person thinks so.’”
“Programmes like this are so important because most others focus on prisoners when they are inside,” says Sikhutshwa. “You cannot tell a person how to drive. That is telling them on paper, it is theory. It is the same in rehabilitation. They teach you how to walk, but they must also show you and guide you until they let you go. This is what this organisation does.”
So who exactly is the organisation helping? Mostly young men, who remain the most at-risk group for becoming youth offenders. The average age for young men to be incarcerated, Osbourn explains, is significantly younger than for women at 16; women, tend to be incarcerated much later, and for crimes such as fraud and murder of their spouses (often in abusive situations).
For many of them, as Sikhutshwa explained, a primary problem is an inability to express emotion verbally; as numerous studies have shown*, a struggle to use language effectively is a key driver of aggression, so a critical element of the programme’s success is providing a platform in which it is both safe and possible to express emotion appropriately.
“Sometimes you can tell participants are not used to it [being spoken to respectfully and kindly],” says Osbourn. “Definitely you can see they are not comfortable. Why are you being so nice to me? But they also then associate it with this place. They realise that is how it works here.”
Every Monday, all participants and staff meet to discuss where they stand and how they are.
But it’s not hand-clapping and kumbaya either, Osbourn points out. Sometimes one has to give participants a gentle shove out of the door when they are ready to leave, as he recently had to do with three participants (they all found employment within two weeks). Sometimes it’s also an initial struggle to get participants through the work that needs to be done; there’s resistance to the process. There’s also sometimes absenteeism, and drug abuse.
“We need to offer discipline and a structure. If someone doesn’t turn up, I need to ask why. But I need to balance that, to notice when someone really is just needing support. There was someone wasn’t coming regularly and we realised he has a problem with drugs because we do drug tests. We had to back down and become caring, to say, please come back, we miss you.
“I’m still figuring out what’s the best way to address those issues. Nobody with a drug problem thinks it’s okay to do drugs. It’s usually the only way to stop feeling shit.”
Is there a recipe for long-term rehabilitation, some idea of statistical probability? Not even those at YiP know for sure. But they are taking it day by day. Sikhutshwa hopes to start his own business one day, he says, and he will give back by hiring from YiP. “Then if that person does something wrong, if he steals from me, I will understand,” he says. “I will understand because I grew up like that. I will give him another chance. I will talk to him, and do it again, and again, and again, until he changes.” (Source: Daily Maverick)
* One such study can be read here.
** According to a 2014 Nicro report, 2% of South Africa’s prisoners were white.