Breath of hope for convicts

The atmosphere along the corridors of the Johannesburg Correctional Services is almost as electric as the fence surrounding this south-west Gauteng maximum security prison.

Excitement reaches fever pitch as the media is ushered in to witness a “very special” event taking place behind the high walls of the prison, dubbed “Sun City” by inmates.

“Hold, breathe, hold, breathe,” shouts Chintz Bhana to nearly 60 detainees sprawled on the freezing floor of a narrow corridor.

Pacing between the two rows of seated offenders, Bhana barks instructions for the start of the morning’s breathing exercises.

As he strides up and down, he keeps tripping over pairs of Nike, Superga, Lacoste and North Star takkies. Blankets and towels, used by the men like yoga mats, create a colourful pattern.

His wide-eyed subjects seem pleased to see him. “These are hardened offenders whose rehabilitation is benefiting immensely from these exercises,” Bhana told us earlier.

The arrival of a documentary camera crew prompts a burst of applause from the pumped-up prisoners.

Bhana orders his subjects to stand and start warming up. “Stand up! And relaaaxx,” he chants, waving his arms. The mass of convicts, their orange overalls illuminating half the room, rises with a collective sigh to greet the sun piercing the narrow, rectangular windows.

Bhana is a volunteer facilitator from the International Association for Human Values, which is implementing a novel Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training (Smart) programme in South African prisons. It is a series of breathing workshops designed to address prison fights and gangsterism caused by stress and anger.

About 4 500 South African prisoners—often long-termers or lifers—have been through the programme, which has been running since 2002.

With more than 10 000 inmates, Sun City is Gauteng’s biggest prison. It is also where some of the Reef’s most hardened criminals, mostly from Soweto and surrounding townships, are confined.

It is the latest facility to sign up to the programme, joining Baviaanspoort, Leeuwkop, Boksburg and Vereeniging/Groenpunt in Gauteng; Durban-Westville in KwaZulu-Natal; and Pollsmoor in the Western Cape.

The first course was completed on May 21 this year. Courses run once a month for six months, after which the programme is assessed.

The eight-day, two hours a day course includes a theory component (explaining the exercises and where and how they originated) and a focus on the exercises themselves: stretching to release physical tension and a four-part breathing routine which relaxes, energises and re-establishes emotional harmony.

Breathing exercises include the “victory breath” and “three-stage breathing” to build lung capacity and reduce toxins; “bellows breathing”, an energising technique; and sudarshan kriyaâ, rooted in Eastern philosophy.

Big Boy Gama (26), a graduate of Sun City’s first course, says the experience has changed his outlook.

“When we started I thought we were being introduced to Satanism because I saw people going into trances. I got scared and I wanted to quit,” Gama says.

Now Gama, serving 12 years for housebreaking, says he is grateful for the Smart programme. “Today I feel like an achiever; I’ve managed to keep up for eight days and I even got a certificate.”

All Smart facilitators are volunteers who take time off work to deliver the programme. “Keeping up with the demand is tough, but we do what we can because we see the impact,” says Bhana.

After completing a diploma in production management, Bhana began working as a tailor in his family business in Durban in 1979. He then worked in the construction industry and South African Breweries’ head office, where he consulted on maintenance practices. But he felt something was missing.

“When I started my own change management consultancy, I decided to give back to the community. So I now take two weeks off work every six weeks to teach a prison Smart programme.”

Bhana has taught in prisons in South Africa, Malawi and Namibia. He initiated the programme in Kenya and travelled to Tanzania to start one there after being invited by the prisons commissioner.

“The complete transformation we see in prisoners supports our view that there are no ‘bad’ people in the world, only people with too much stress,” he says. “If we can help rehabilitate more prisoners, it will have a significant impact on our country.”

Lucas Mahlangu (28) says the workshops have made him appreciate life again. “I feel free, and I’ve noticed my temper has gone down,” he says. “I’m happier and friendlier.”

Mahlangu, serving eight years for car theft, is doing computer studies through the prison’s education programme. He says prison life has “brought out the best in me”.

On the last day of the programme, as participants are handed certificates, the camaraderie is exhilarating. There’s signing, shouting and whistling along the corridors.

Gama is jubilant. “It feels good to have a certificate like this. When I come out of prison, I’ll show it off to prove to my family that I’ve changed—that I’m no longer a ‘skelm’.”

The experience of thousands of prisoners like Gama recalls the comment of French writer, Jean Genet—himself a former convict: “There is a close relationship between flowers and convicts. The fragility and delicacy of the former are of the same nature as the brutal insensitivity of the latter.”

Plans are now afoot to train warders in the techniques.

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