Light Through the Bars: Understanding and Rethinking South Africa’s Prisons by Fr Babychan Arackathara is published by Mercury and Burnet Media. This extract published by permission.
Understanding the importance of social context, in particular the importance of family.
For a long time, I have wanted to write about my journey with offenders, ex-offenders and their families – who come from all races, varied economic backgrounds, different cultures and religions – and to examine my experiences in the light of some formal research on how best to rehabilitate and reintegrate those neglected by or cast out from society.
I started my journey in Hardap Prison in Mariental, Namibia in 1998, where I was asked to visit a group of Catholic inmates for Holy Mass. I vividly remember the young men who came to Mass with eagerness, wanting to listen to the word of God. Although I wanted to listen to their stories and understand their life and activities, I was unable to engage with them as I lacked proficiency in the local language, Afrikaans. I would start by greeting them, “Goeie môre, en hoe gaan dit?” (Good morning, and how are you?) But I couldn’t go any further as I was very new to Afrikaans. Nevertheless, I could read the bewilderment and disappointment in their eyes, and the pain of loneliness and desperation. My first experiences at Hardap certainly made a deep impression on me.
Upon my transfer to Vredendal, South Africa, in 1999, I was again asked to visit the local prison in Vanrhynsdorp. My weekly visit to the prison was an opportunity to engage with men from the surrounding impoverished townships. Most ended up in jail for shoplifting, housebreaking or mugging people in the townships.
I was transferred to Cape Town in January, 2002. A month later, I received a call from Sister Marie Brady, a Loreto nun, who had worked in prisons for several years. She and Lesley Jansen, then coordinator of the Prison Care & Support Network, a Catholic NPO that offered emotional and spiritual support to prisoners across the Western Cape, wanted to persuade me to join them in their service to prisoners. This seemed like a continued call to prison ministry, and I readily agreed.
On my first visit to the infamous Pollsmoor prison at the foot of the scenic Constantiaberg – situated, with great irony, opposite the wealthy and manicured Steenberg golf estate – I was extremely anxious. I had heard a lot about the brutal Number gangs and harsh prison conditions. Gradually my perceptions changed as I began to interact with the remand and sentenced prisoners at the Pollsmoor facilities, which house more than 7,000 prisoners, even though the prison only has capacity for 4,330 inmates. It is, in fact, a prison campus, consisting of five prisons: Maximum Security, Medium A & B, Pre-Release (Medium C), and the Female Centre of Excellence.
Sister Brady, who accompanied me during my initial visits, was well known to the inmates as a soft-spoken woman of wisdom; she shared invaluable guidance and insights with me.
My group sessions with men of all ages here gave me first-hand experience of the reality of crime from both the perpetrator’s and victim’s perspective. Listening to the stories of inmates opened another world to me, and I began to understand my prejudices, no doubt absorbed from the general public: that prisoners were worthless people; that they were monsters who would never change their behaviour, and who should either be banished from the face of the earth, or locked up and the key thrown away.
It is interesting to see how ordinary, law-abiding, God-fearing people view prisons and prisoners. Very often the words “crime”, “criminal”, “prisoner”, “violence”, “gangs”, “gangster”, “drug dealer”, “offender” and “Pollsmoor” take on the same connotations. Many people secretly (and not so secretly) want to see the return of the death penalty because they believe that then there would be less crime in our society.
On the other hand, I have witnessed the reality of how historical, social, economic, societal and familial contexts affect crime and the prevalence of crime, particularly on the Cape Flats outside Cape Town. I have come to believe that many of us fail to comprehend the contribution that these factors and contexts make towards antisocial and deviant decisions, actions and reactions. The truth is that both those who perpetrate and perpetuate crime, and those who protect themselves against crime and criminal elements, find themselves imprisoned by the choices they have made.
The myth that often deceives us as a society is that we are safe behind a strong wall and security alarms and cameras – if we have them. We remain confident that the serious challenge of crime can be solved by locking up the offenders and forgetting about them, despite this approach having failed us for so long. But when we accept such propositions, we are actually ignoring the real issues.
It helps to accept that those who end up in prison have parents, and that most of them come from a family. They are part of a community. We have to ask ourselves these difficult questions: how did they become who they are? Where did they learn what they do? Who should be held responsible for their damaging upbringing and the lack of timely interventions in their first steps into delinquent behaviours?