As Jameela Jacobs* gazes out the window of the Cape Town café on bustling Wale Street, she holds her belly and fiddles with an unlit cigarette. She is almost at bursting point – her twin girls are scheduled to face the world in a few months – but she will not give up smoking.
The rough tattoos lining her arms and wrists cling to her. But it is the one just under her fringe that reveals more about her journey than anything else. On her forehead “Allah” is written in Arabic script. It is the prison engraving she got when she finally came back to her faith, which she left behind after she and her ex-boyfriend murdered “that man”, the one on his way to hajj.
“After that,” she says, her entire body visibly constricting at the memory, “whenever I saw a tasbeeh [rosary] I would see blood dripping from it.”
Jacobs spent 18 years of her life sentence in 10 different maximum security prisons thinking about that murder. She was released on parole in January last year.
Over the course of several weeks last month, as she struggled to re-build her life, she told me about her time as a female gang member and her life in prison. It came out in stops and starts – trust would never be an easy thing for her. But in the end, Jacobs’s story became not just a way of understanding what had unravelled for her, but also what was happening to the growing number of women in gangs in their almost inevitable lives behind bars – and what happens if and when they get out.
The South African Police Service said it was impossible to provide an estimate of the number of people involved in gangsterism in South Africa, not to mention the number
of women in gangs, and little research had been done on the phenomenon.
Gender expert Lisa Vetten found in her research for the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation in 2000 that women gang members shoplifted and laundered money and goods stolen in robberies. They tended to be, she wrote, more involved in the economic than the violent side of gangsterism.
But that may be changing. In early May, news of two female gangs terrorising Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats hit the papers. According to Independent Online, the Vatos Babes, linked to the Vatos Locos gang and the Voora Babes, linked to the Voora gang, have been carrying out spates of stabbings and robberies over the past few weeks.
Such occurrences are supported by research done by Irvin Kinnes, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s centre for criminology, who wrote in 2008 that the function of women in gangs was shifting. Whereas they previously played roles supportive of men, they were now increasingly becoming part of the teams carrying out violent robberies and shootings.
On the street
Jacobs was born into a strict religious Muslim family in Hanover Park in 1973. The oldest of four siblings, she could recite the Qur’an by heart by the age of 12. She prayed five times a day and dreamed of visiting Mecca. But when she was 16, after finding out that her parents had lied to her about the identity of her biological father, she ran away from home.
Living on the streets, she quickly became involved with local gangs and started taking drugs, eventually shooting heroin. It was during her first robbery that fellow gang members told her she had to rob and stab a man on the street. When she said she did not know how to, the gang members called her a traitor and one stabbed her in the head.
“Suddenly I saw blood all over my face and I felt a breeze coming through my brain,” she said. “I was so scared they were going to kill me, I just took a knife and stabbed him. It was like putting a knife in a mattress. I don’t know what happened to that man, but that night I didn’t care. I was too busy thinking about my own pain.”
It was about that time that she met Angelo*, a gangster nine years her senior, at the house of a local drug merchant. Their first meeting was dramatic: Angelo saved her life when his brother, who was high on drugs at the time, tried to stab her. The two fell in love and Jacobs soon fell pregnant. When her son was born, she gave him to her estranged parents to take care of. (Now 19, he still lives with her mother and is studying engineering.) Angelo, who was physically abusive, taught her how to put guns together and take them apart so that she could protect herself against rival gang members.
She would not elaborate much on the murder for which she was imprisoned, like Angelo, her co-accused, saying only that after the killing she went on the run for a year and a half, using several aliases and often wearing men’s clothing and pasting on a moustache. She was finally piemped (sold out) to the police by a fellow female gangster in 1993 and she and Angelo were both tried and sentenced to life in prison.
Jacobs was just one of the nearly 4000 women inmates in South African prisons.
After a month of persistent emails, calls and text messages, the department of correctional services still had not responded to questions involving women in prison, so the most recent available statistics comes from research done by the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative in 2004. It found that the majority of women imprisoned were sentenced for aggressive crimes, followed by smaller numbers of those in jail for economic crimes and those who had been caught with weapons or narcotics.
Female prisoners are held in eight women-only prisons and separate from men in five mixed prisons, most of which are grossly overcrowded. Pollsmoor’s female facility, for example, is functioning at 204% capacity.
Clare Ballard, a legal researcher at the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative at the University of the Western Cape’s community law centre, said the low number of women inmates (compared with the 156000 men in prison) had led to less of a perceived need to separate them according to security classification. That means women coming in for petty theft are put in the same cells as gangsters and murderers. When they get out and turn to crime again – recidivism for prisoners is estimated to be between 80% and 90% – they are well versed in violent crime.
Jacobs said women would scar each other by putting razor blades in the porridge or fish cakes and some girls, whose boyfriends were in gangs on the outside, would be told to rape the girlfriends of rival gangsters in prison using hair rollers, roll-on deodorant or brushes.
Although no research exists on sexual assault on women in prison, a study by the judicial inspectorate for correctional services in 2007 found that 7% of males in prison had been sexually abused.
Sasha Gear, the programme director of Just Detention, a non-governmental organisation working to prevent sexual violence in prison, said this figure probably represented “the tip of the iceberg”. The danger of further victimisation, the stigma associated and the concern that inmates would not receive assistance even if they did report rape all kept those numbers low.
Jacobs said violence in women’s prisons was less prevalent today than when she was first sentenced. When it did occur, she said, it was often related to jealousy over sexual relationships between women inmates. With her aggressive attitude, Jacobs took on the male role in prison. She would wear “trunkies” (men’s underwear) and men’s shoes, wear her pants hanging low and use only men’s toiletries.
In 2006, however, she “went clean off drugs, gangsterism and lesbianism”, explaining that three “visions of God” led her to want to live a quieter life in prison. This was when she got the tattoo on her forehead, hoping eventually to get “the 99 names of Allah” in different places on her body.
Three years later, she met Riaz*, who spotted Jacobs while visiting another inmate. He began visiting her and they maintained a relationship for a year and a half while she was in prison. A few months after she was released she fell pregnant.
It is the twins that give her hope amid her daily struggle to adjust to life on the outside.
She travels to a hospital in the city for check-ups with a gynaecologist, an expensive commute because she is required to live in the Cape Flats suburb of Mitchells Plain as a condition of parole.
She does not live with Riaz, but he pays her rent from the R3500 he earns as a cashier in a retail shop. She has no contact with the rest of her family but sees her son occasionally.
“After almost 20 years in prison, the system doesn’t give you any support,” she said. “You have to adjust to the world again, but there’s no help. The road names have changed, the buildings all look different, people that you knew have died.”
It is this lack of support that leads many parolees to turn to crime once again as a means of survival. Yet, according to Ballard, only 4% of the department’s annual budget is allocated to social reintegration.
Venessa Padayachee, national advocacy and lobbying manager at the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders, said the community corrections unit, which houses parole officers at the department of correctional services, did not have the capacity to provide support to inmates leaving prison.
“It’s a different world in prison,” said Padayachee. “When you come out, you need to learn how to deal with the world again.”
Jacobs is slowly learning this lesson. She is living in the upstairs bedroom of a middle-aged couple and has a door that does not lock. She fears for her and her unborn children’s lives because of threats from gang members, but has managed to find some hope.
“I asked God to bless me with a baby girl and now he has given me two,” she said, rubbing her belly.
*Some names have been changed
Ilham Rawoot is a fellow of the Open Society Initiative of South Africa’s media fellowship. This article is one in a series on local prisons