Prisons minister hopes poetry can transform his charges

The Star 24 June 2013_Carolyn article


How she’ll escape from her own bars, after her home and family were violated, she’s not so sure, writes Carolyn Raphaely (published in The Star, 24 June 2013


AS THE Pollsmoor marimba band rocked the marquee at Cape Town’s Goodwood Prison and Minister of Correctional Services Sibusiso Ndebele extolled the rehabilitative powers of poetry, my husband was lying face-down on his office floor in Johannesburg. He was focusing on the feet of the well-dressed, well-spoken young men pointing four guns at his head while threatening to kill him if he didn’t disclose the location of our safe, jewellery or cash – none of which we have in our home.

“We’re serious, sissie, we’re here to work…” they told our helper while corralling her and three terrified members of our gardening service into the house before disembowelling every drawer and cupboard and ransacking the house.

Meantime, the avuncular minister was telling the mostly brown-uniformed crowd about the need to impact “the heart, heads and hands of offenders so that on release they’d have a certificate in one hand and a skill in the other.

“Through poetry, art, culture, music, education, training and skills development, we seek to transform offenders into people who’ll emerge from our correctional centres to make a meaningful and positive contribution,” he said.

To this end, the Goodwood Gallery of Hope – an art gallery within the prison walls, but open to the public – was launched last month. The gallery aims to showcase offender art, help inmates sell their work, support their families, raise money for their release and also serve as an after-care centre to ease reintegration.

The publication of Unchained, an anthology of prisoners’ poetry launched on the same day, constitutes the second prong of a cultural revolution Ndebele envisages for the 243 correctional centres he oversees countrywide.

After attending the Goodwood celebrations, I returned to Jozi to find a trashed home and a traumatised husband and helper. Struggling to make sense of the armed robbery, I figured that the devastation the robbers left behind was way more significant than anything they took away.

And, our circumstances were not unique. With South Africa’s unacceptably high crime rates and the highest prison population on the continent, it’s hardly surprising that Ndebele is a man with a mission.

Yet while Ndebele was addressing the assembled gathering, I couldn’t help thinking that the real problem facing the department related to chronic prison overcrowding, particularly in remand facilities – a “crisis” he acknowledged in his budget speech two days later.

According to Ndebele, of a prison population of 152 514, 107 471 have been sentenced. This means a third of all correctional centre inmates are theoretically innocent because they have not yet been proven guilty and do not “qualify” for rehabilitation. What’s more, remand detainees are routinely incarcerated for up to 23 hours a day with no access to reading or educational materials.

In these chronically overcrowded cells, petty thieves share beds with rapists and murderers. With some inmates forced to wait up to six or seven years for the conclusion of their trials, even if they’re acquitted, there’s a high probability they’ll be hardened criminals by then.

Given these seemingly insurmountable problems and the rude collision of my private and professional worlds, I’ve been forced to re-evaluate my work. Spending my days investigating miscarriages of justice and defending the rights of offenders like those who’ve violated my family’s rights poses intractable questions.

Am I filled with hate and anger? Do I think the potential poets who changed the trajectory of my husband and helper’s lives in a heartbeat should rot in hell? Do I have less respect for prisoners’ rights? Am I simply in denial as some friends have suggested? No, no and no.

Yes, I’m overwhelmed by the reality of what happened and what could have happened. Yes, I have less trust in my judgements about people and some of the inmates I’ve defended. And, predictably I’m much more fearful.

Yet I still believe prisoners’ rights are indivisible from human rights and that some out-of-the-box thinking is required. Clogged court-rolls, corrupt officials, lost or missing transcripts, lack of adequately qualified court interpreters, faulty recording equipment, poor legal representation, an over-worked, underpaid, unskilled and increasingly brutal police force coupled with a growing culture of impunity and poor detective work are all pressing problems.

As life returns to abnormal behind the doors of our own suburban prison, my scientific husband is obsessing about the probability of a repeat performance.

“The dice has no memory,” he says. “The really scary thing is not that it’s happened, but that the chances of it happening again haven’t lessened. Just because one gang has discovered we don’t have a safe, jewellery or cash… doesn’t mean another won’t arrive…”

As for me, I can only pray that one day poetry or painting will rehabilitate the barbarians who forced their way inside my gates. That’s if they’re ever caught. Meantime, I applaud Ndebele’s noble vision: “It’s better to light a candle,” he told those gathered at the Gallery of Hope, “than curse the darkness.”


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

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