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Children in Pollsmoor

When Motebang Masitha was 18 years old, he broke into a policeman's house, and was caught.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for housebreaking and robbery, and sent to Pollsmoor Juvenile, which he describes as "a nightmare, full of rape and gang war".

Now, eight years later, he is out on parole, studying hospitality management and working part time as a chef at the Old Biscuit Mill in Cape Town.

But he is one of the lucky ones – with no formal access to education or pre and post-release support programmes, young people leaving South Africa's prisons have an estimated recidivism rate of 50%.

Read more: Juvenile offenders: Youth care centre at risk of closure

In February 2011, there were 861 children in prison, under the age of 18, and 54 075 youth between the ages of 18 and 25.

Just under half of these prisoners are awaiting trial.

Masitha was put in a single cell, with one bed, along with two other boys. The toilet didn't work and his clothes became infested with fleas.

Normal human beings
He chose to join the 28's gang, who he says were the only people he could trust.

"They were at the top of the food chain," he says.

"I did it to avoid being picked on and treated like shit like the guys who are not in gangs."

The tattoo that says 28 in roman numerals is faded but still visible on his left forearm, and when passengers sitting next to him see it on the train, they move away to another seat.

But the sexual violence soon "bothered" him.

"There are people in there who are sick," he says.

Hardened gangsters
"They don't function like normal human beings. One night I saw a boy being raped in the shower, and it was sad, man."

But living outside a gang is not easy: newcomers to juvenile prison are immediately mixed with hardened gangsters.

"Everybody is put in one place," says Masitha.

"Rapists, murderers, thieves – a guy who steals chocolates from Shoprite gets put in the same cell as a guy who has killed five or six people."

It was hard for Masitha to stay motivated to finish his schooling.

"There were no lessons," he says. "They just give you a textbook and then you are expected to write exams at the end of the year. This is why juvies don't care about school."

Inspiration for Masitha came in the guise of Young in Prison (Yip), an organisation that works with youth in correctional centres, focusing on individual growth and creating some educational and creative framework, where none is available.

Director, Tarisai Mchuchu-Ratshidi, spends her days between working with children in prisons and struggling with government departments to improve their failed system of youth imprisonment.

Individualised rehabilitation
Most juvenile sentences are less than 24 months, she says, and juveniles serving less than two years are not entitled to sentence plans, or individualised rehabilitation programmes, which means they waste the one or two years they are in prison.

She often comes across prisoners in their thirties or even forties, being held in the youth section.

"There are no pre-release or post-release programmes," she says, "so some children purposefully come back to prison, because it's all that they know, and they cannot function outside."

"Yeah, the department gives you a lot when you come out," says Masitha with a sarcastic smirk.

"They give you a criminal record and a permanent blacklisting, and then they say 'go and find a job'."

Legally, children between ages 10 and 16 are supposed to attend formal schooling in prison, but this doesn't happen, because of the lack of teachers in prisons.

Community Dialogs
Mchuchu-Ratshidi regularly raises these issues through the parliamentary committee on Correctional Services in the hope that they can influence the way the department budgets and allocates funds.

But they have not had much success, with DCS more focused on security rather than rehabilitation, she says.

In the meantime, her organisation is providing some form of rehabilitation for juveniles who would otherwise have had none.

"Through Yip, I managed to pick up some of the broken pieces of my life," says Masitha.

"I did poetry and gum boot dancing, and wanted to finish school.

He is now part of a project called Community Dialogs, focusing on initiate dialog in trouble-stricken communities in the Western Cape, as well as a mentorship programme in his native Philippi.

"I realised that I put myself in prison and needed to take responsibility and break down the emotional walls I had built around me."

According to Koos Gerber, spokesperson for the department of correctional services, the department is currently reviewing the rehabilitation path of short term offenders.

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