Into the belly of the beast

On Thursday 10 February, some of the members of the Wits Justice Project (WJP) took off their “Justice” hats and coats and went to Sun City Prison to teach a creative writing class. Below, Taryn Arnott, a new member of the WJP, describes the experience:

“Don’t be scared,” says Azania, the long slash across his lip crumpling into a cheeky smile as his eyes stay fixed on mine. “You are safe here!”

I would almost, against my best instincts, be comforted by the soothing voice of this gangster-turned-non if the setting were more serene. But here, in the rec hall deep in the belly of Johannesburg Prison’s (Sun City’s) Medium B, curious eyes are fixed on me from every corner of the room.

I am too nervous to meet one of those gazes, so my attention stays with Azania, my ears straining to hear his charming voice over the jovial laughter and shouting echoing throughout the hall – which has appalling acoustics.

Behind us, prisoners knotted together on benches listen and talk in one of their Fear-free life classes.  The words “live every day as though it were your last day on earth” are sprawled across the chalk board.

Armed with ball point pens, soft-cover note books, and delicately wavering confidence, we (Jeremy Gordin, Miriam Mokoena and I) had marched into Jo’burg’s notorious home for long-termers to teach creative writing to the members of Cult-Arttainment, a creative group that inmates in the prison have formed.

The inmates in Medium B are supposedly the kind of guys that you wouldn’t want to be trapped alone with in a dark alley, the kind that you imagine lurking at your window when you hear a bump in the night. They are your worst nightmare – murders, rapists, hijackers – in living, breathing, walking flesh.

I have covered every provocative piece of flesh that I have with thick baggy fabric, but I still feel exposed when a female warder mishandles my bosom and underarms searching for any dangerous objects. And cellphones. She brushes lightly over my jeans, missing my jean pockets.

With the heavy clicks of two security doors, we are deep into Medium B, where inmates slouch against the walls and huddle in jaded swarms. Their heads turn when they see three plain-clothed outsiders amble down the corridors. As we pass out of the second door, I brace myself for the foul stench that one would expect to hang in the dank, cold, windowless corridors of a prison. But Medium B smells of bleach, washing powder and warm Zambuk.

A guard enters with us, but he is quickly distracted by one of the huddles and leaves us to wander through by ourselves.

I have never before looked a convicted lifer in the eyes. I avert my eyes, waiting for the cat calls and whistling that is bound to come. It never does. When I lift them again, instead of meeting expected psychotic stares with crude whistles and conniving smirks, I’m given the once over, and almost forgotten.

Another steel door is shut behind us, and we head towards the light streaming in between the bodies crowding the door to the yard. A few men in soccer gear are shuffling in from the outside. Puzzled stares meet ours, as we return them with brave faces that mask jangled nerves and inflamed imaginations.

The perfectly manicured grass and rose bushes in the yard are in complete juxtaposition to the dusty, grimy and barren grounds of my imagination.

Men stand at one side of the lawn shaking out their bright orange prison overalls and cream sheets. Some iron their clothes under the shade of the cell blocks. We shuffle into the rec hall, where Mthombisi, one of the inmate leaders of Cult-Arttainment, greets us.

Mthombisi has a glow that I seldom see, in even the most happiest of souls on the outside. His strong cheekbones, perfect teeth, long eyelashes and dimples accentuate a shy charisma. He is anxious to start the class and excited about the progress the group has already made. And he is beautiful. He commands a certain respect from the other men.

“We don’t have a lot of gangs in here,” says Azania, while we wait for a space to open up for our session, “and when we do, we try sort them out quick.”

When Mthombisi grows impatient with the wait, and nervous to disrupt the delicate balance of hospitality and formality that he has shown his guests, we head upstairs into the cellblock looking for an empty room. Through the clean underwear hanging on the burglar bars of the cells, I spy a man lifting weights inside. We head into a small storage room coated with chalk dust that has been converted into a classroom. “There’s not going to be enough space,” I say to Mthombisi, immediately ashamed by having told an inmate that a room inside the prison is too small.

Eventually, we settle down for the class in a corner of the yard. The men squash together on the benches, scrounging for every lick of shade that they can get. I sit in the sun, soaking up the sunlight that I so seldom make an effort to enjoy. Within minutes it is burning my already pink skin.

Taking turns in the circle, men introduce themselves and say what it is they feel they may get out of creative writing classes. We progress from clichés such as “you are giving us light in our darkness,” and “crime doesn’t play”, to  extremes such as “I want to be a film script writer,” and writing scripts for video games. “Do you have video games in here?” asks Gordin. “No, sir, PSPs,” is the resounding response.

Many of the men introduce themselves with a “I stay in Kagiso,” or “I live in Diepsloot.” This puzzles Gordin. “It’s strange for me,” he says, “many of you say you live in all these places. But don’t you all live here?” A roar of laughter rises from the group, as they laugh off our puzzlement.

A man known as Barry White for his deep melodic baritone, says, “I love prison, and prison loves me!”

Vusi, a lyrical man with long dreadlocks, one of the leaders of the group, says that he wants to record his personal history. I struggle to picture the Rasta with a gun in his hand when he tells me he is in for armed robbery. It’s almost laughable. “There is so much in my mind that needs to come out.”

Off to the side, a slick gray kitty cat is toying in the dust with a fellow kitty. They move between the prisoners, oblivious to and comfortable with the men around them.

A giant of a man stands up. “If I can learn to write my emotions, I can learn to control them. Like, if I had just held my temper for one second, I would not be here. So I want to write my emotions.”

The members of Cult-Arttainment have launched their group with the purpose of learning skills that they can use when they’re on the outside. “We know that we may not get jobs when we are on the outside,” says Vusi, “so we want to be able to make something of ourselves.” They have delved into drama, poetry, creative writing, performance, music and stand-up comedy.

I glance down at their feet. Some wear slippers with checkered socks, others wear perfectly laced, polished shoes.

Two men tell us how they will be leaving prison within the next two months. They do not have any rehabilitation or readjustment programs when they get out. They have created programs, such as Cult-Arttainment, for themselves inside the prison. The men tell us how they feel no animosity or jealousy when one of them leaves. “We are glad for them!” they affirm.

An overwhelming passion for poetry dominates the group. Only at the end do the men start to come out of their shells. When the opportunity is given to recite poetry or prose, a few hands shoot up.

Michael is the next up. “Hip hip,” he calls. “Hooray,” respond the prisoners. “Hip hip,” “Hooray”. I am aghast when his poem leads one into a killer’s invasion of schools, women, prostitutes, and families. I am dumbstruck. And then, his poem warps into the killer’s aversion to ARVs.

And then, it turns out, Michael’s “killer” is not himself, but the Aids virus – something that the prisoners have been long educated in and are so very aware of. His words are like soothing ice-cream that suffocates the throat when swallowed. They are lyrical and sweet, brutal and blaringly honest, poetic in every sense of the word.

Another man stands up, and recites his favourite poem out of his head. Another launches into a witty, melodic and catchy slam poem. There is nothing I can teach these men, I realize. But what I can learn from them is precious.

The men have many questions about journalism and the skills one would need to make a career out of it. They address Jeremy with a “Mr. Gordin,” and a raised hand, the inhibited curiosity that we were first met with now becoming less controlled. They hang on to his every word, captivated by the possibilities of knowledge that he can offer them.

As the group comes to an end, the men scramble to my side, requesting that I hear their personal stories, that I track down their long lost loves, that I give them my phone number so that they can phone and speak to me about being a writer. But our time is up, and the guard is waiting. I carry their books and pens while they move their benches back inside.

The final door to exit from Medium B is in my sight when a short and vicious looking inmate catches my eye. In a swoop he grabs at my arm. I pull back, point my pen in his face, and utter a stern “no”. He jumps back, and Vusi gives him a vicious look as we pass through.

Out of the belly of the beast.

About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

One Response to Into the belly of the beast

  1. Pingback: My beast’s belly « tiedyoungblood

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