When art is the only escape

Glynnis O’Hara spen a few hours behind bars - observing art projects intended to help prisoners find a creative outlet

`I USED to be ashamed of my crime [kidnapping, possession of firearms and explosives],” says a prisoner in Diepkloof’s Medium C section. “Not any more. I’ve learned to forgive myself.
I was an angry person, I grew up in an orphanage. I’m less angry now.”

The prisoner, sentenced to 11 years for his crime, was telling his story during a poetry workshop run by Elaine Rumboll at Diepkloof - the highlight of the week for some inmates.

Ten men, found guilty of crimes ranging from double murder to armed robbery, gathered in a small meeting room with Rumboll as they have done for the past year, to explore a side of themselves most of them hardly knew existed.

Earlier, six women, there for fraud, robbery and one for murder, did the same thing in a shared cell and small concrete courtyard. And, for the first time, a warden joined in. There’s something quite disturbing and moving about watching a warden and a murder prisoner participate in an exercise on trust, each taking turns to be blindfolded and led around the courtyard.

When asked to describe trust in terms of touch, smell, colour, as an object, their language and imagery was astounding. Trust is like water, they said, it moves and flows and changes and its flip-side is jealousy. It’s also like a broken cup that’s been fixed - you never know how long it will hold or how much it will leak. And it has the sound of a horse galloping at full speed in a race that you’ve gambled all your money on, they said. So there it is, a poem almost written.

All the prisoners stressed that the workshop fulfilled a need for mental stimulation, something sorely lacking inside prison walls, they said.

As one put it: “We never had anything like this in the educational system ... it’s been an opportunity I wouldn’t have had outside. It’s a pity more people don’t come, but they don’t all speak English and language is a problem.”

Added another: “It’s something to stimulate your mind. Before, I was an actor, and this provides a space to sensitise and enhance creative ability. It helps with rehabilitation too. It’s not just intellectual, you grow personally and as a human being, you broaden.”

And another: “It means a lot, it keeps my brain going. Without it, my brain would just die.”

It all sounds great - and believe me, watching the process, it is great - but what will Joe and Jane Public make of it? A lot of people believe the harshness of prison is deserved, part of just punishment for crime. But most insiders come out again - as what? All too often much more hardened and violent than when they went in.

In post-apartheid South Africa, we’re looking at prisons and prison conditions in a way this country has never done before. There are 120 000 prisoners occupying accommodation for 95 000, according to Gary Friedman of the Puppets in Prison programme, and 450 000 to 500 000 prisoners pass through the jails every year. So, clearly, most are short-term.

And the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) is clearly not the place it used to be. Had anyone tried to take a poetry workshop to prisons 10 years ago, they would have been derided for having “pansy ideas” and had their Communist leanings investigated.

Now, the DCS views the burgeoning creativity programmes as “essential” according to spokesman Russel Mamabolo. Prisoners “are all human beings and the vast majority of them inevitably return to the community”.

The department was thus committed to “expose prisoners as far as possible” to psychological treatment, educational, skills training and recreational programmes. However, funds were a problem and community involvement thus a necessity. The department held the work of volunteers in “high esteem”, he said. “No matter how small or insignificant some projects might sound to some, it all contributes towards equipping the prisoners for a better and crime-free life after imprisonment.”

Carl Niehaus of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services concurred. “These projects are excellent, we need to give our support to them and work at expanding them. Prison doesn’t allow for easily expressing emotions and developing skills like painting or drawing help ... and it’s extremely important to get in touch with one’s emotions.”

Because most prisoners are short-term, it is crucial they do not come out worse “because that’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. We do not want to create an even worse criminal. We’re not creating a hotel either, but there must be conditions to develop and grow and become better people.

“I think it’s our responsibility, one that we’ve failed in the past ... There’s a very, very high rate of recidivism in this country. There’re not enough programmes and facilities for prisoners.”

Should there be separation of long- and short-term prisoners? “Yes,” he said, “there should be diversification but resources are a problem. With over-crowding it’s difficult to do.”

Now, however, there’s a growing list. Most of them are one-offs, or short-lived things, but some have managed to sustain themselves over time.

Fiona Lloyd, a community radio trainer recently did two workshops on radio techniques and facilitated the creation of a radio drama. Nontsikelelo Qaba did a workshop on vernacular praise poetry. Musician Matthew van der Want did a workshop on how to write, play and produce songs, “which a delegation from the United States liked so much they took them back to the US prisons”, said Rumboll.

Nicro (National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders) is right behind the idea as well. “We’ve got a massive art competition running at the moment,” said spokesperson Rosemary Shapiro, “called Shades of Life, Sorrow and Celebration. Forty prisons participated, with people contributing either sculptures or paintings, and entries have been flowing in.” There are local prizes and a national one of R1 000, the winner to be announced on October 21 in Cape Town at the Breakwater Lodge (once a prison). “They’ve been expressing sides of themselves they didn’t know they had, as well as things the public should know about ...

“Anything that increases humanity and reduces brutality is a good thing and increases the ability to be in society in a constructive way.

“By tapping into the more feminine (creative) sides of life, one is taking steps to reducing crime ... the first commitment must be to prevent re-offending.”

And, of course, there’s Going Home, The Leeuwkop Male Prisoner’s Choir CD released by Gallo. The choir, consisting of prisoners from Pretoria Prison and Leeuwkop, is coached by outsiders Helena van der Merwe and Rikus Burger.

“Yes, we are behind bars and high walls and our bodies are imprisoned. But through this singing we have freed our minds and souls, and for that I will stay eternally grateful,” commented one of the choir leaders, Coleman Mgogodla.

Added another, Edward Makgatle: “We have changed our attitudes towards our fellow inmates and warders and towards ourselves.”

Puppets In Prison, run by Friedman and Nyanga Tshabalala, was initiated when the Department approached them asking for a programme to help combat Aids. The prisoners write their own scripts, make the puppets and act our their own plays. A video of the workshops, in which male prisoners enact a rape, offers shocking, graphic proof of how dehumanising and brutal it can be inside - not to mention fatal, with the Aids infection rate estimated to be between 15 to 30% in prisons, says Friedman.

That’s beside the allegation in the video from some prisoners that warders themselves are sometimes involved in “selling” prisoners to other prisoners. “Warders sell juveniles,” said one. And another: “They smuggle us into the cells of older prisoners.”

“I cannot comment as there were no incidents reported that we are aware of. If that had happened it would be unlawful and the department would never allow or condone such behaviour,” said DCS spokesman Mamabolo.

Arepp (African Research and Educational Puppetry Programme) has taken a participatory Aids show, Check Your Mate, to prisons, and is in negotiations over getting workshopped shows going in East Rand prisons next year.

“If you’re involved in something creative, it’s rehabilitative,” adds the programme’s Brigid Schutz. “A lot of people, especially in prisons, have never had a creative outlet. People just say: `I never, ever thought I could do this’.”

“Prisoners are not in prison forever,” says Rumboll, “and if there’re no mechanisms for them to work through why they’re there and what they’ve done, they’ll come out more damaged. The system must address these issues ...”

What then? “I think many of them have accepted responsibility for what they’ve done, but there’s no space to work through the consequences.”

The problem is, though, that most programmes are short-term. Longer-term ones, like the poetry workshop, struggle with funding.

The poetry workshop, funded by Arts Alive for the past year, ran out of money this week, but Rumboll is continuing. Puppets In Prison, designed to save lives as well as tap into creative energies, is running into cash problems too, despite the fact that it was commissioned.

Let’s leave the last word to Hennie Kroukamp, assistant head warder at Diepkloof’s Medium C. “There’s a big improvement in discipline and creativity. I hate to admit it, but the poetry workshop is positive,” he says, smiling. “It has a rehabilitative value, in increasing self- respect and caring for each other as well. People have learned to operate in a group. Now they’ll share a paintbrush, whereas before they wouldn’t.”