Inmates bring first-hand ordeals to the stage

Glenda Oliver faces the judge. She knows she will be sentenced today. Her brother is at her side. When her sentence of four years is handed down, her brother begins to weep.

“I will not break down,” she tells herself.

“Here are my car keys,” she says to her brother. “There are two letters at home for the children.”

This incident inspired the opening scene of The Outsiders, a play performed by eight inmates of Pollsmoor prison, and three parolees, at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town this week.

Pollsmoor has been the training ground for this performance for the past six months.

The Outsiders uses theatre as a tool for rehabilitation. It stems from a programme by the Varde Theatre in Norway, the Help! I Am Free programme, which has been running for a decade.

The project was launched in South Africa last year as a partnership between the Varde Theatre and the department of correctional services. It is funded by the Norwegian government’s Peace Corps and involves collaboration between the Artscape Theatre, Pollsmoor and Nicro – the South African National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders.

“The script came together organically,” says co-director Stian Olderkjaer, a Norwegian actor.

SA's overcrowded prisons

Co-director Terje Halsvik, also a Norwegian actor and theatre educator, says: “Through discussing themes, the lines were inspired by their [inmates’] words and thoughts, which were incorporated into the text.”

The title, The Outsiders, is a play on the boundaries and divides between the cell and the outside world.

“Inmates are always outsiders to society, with the stamp of being ex-offenders,” says Halsvik. “In the play, the outsiders are society doing an experiment on the inmates.”

Set in a cell, with only tape marking the boundaries, the play follows the main character, the “New One”, played by Oliver.

It shows how she is introduced to the cell, and the others disagree over how to treat her. One of the inmates questions why they are expected to behave like animals, to which another responds: “Why else would they lock us up in cages?”

The play follows the New One until she leaves prison and must face her family at home.

Pigeon rewards
The theme is inspired by American psychologist Burrhus Skinner’s experiment to see the reaction of pigeons when given rewards.

Olderkjaer says: “We relate that to what we see prison as an ongoing experiment on how to treat unwanted behaviour in people.”

“It’s difficult for insiders [inmates and ex-offenders] to understand what outsiders [society] want them to do,” Halsvik says. “They have served their sentence but still don’t get accepted.”

In real life, Oliver (43) is a first-time offender. She was arrested for fraud in June last year and was convicted and sentenced in February.

“I was led away into the unknown. I didn’t know what to expect when I got to the bottom of the court.”

Oliver was born in Mitchells Plain where she matriculated from Mondale High. She lived in Kuilsriver with her two children – her daughter is a law student and her son is studying marketing.

“The drive to Pollsmoor was the longest drive of my life,” she says.

She was surrounded by women smoking and sniffing drugs. “I want to get out, God,” she pleaded.

It has been four months since that terrible drive.

Oliver shares a two-by-four-metre cell with two other women. Her poem, Shackled, is incorporated into the play.

“Shackled is about my fear when I came inside these four walls, my shame that I feel, and that these four walls will always hold my tears and shame,” Oliver says, adding that, despite being imprisoned, “I still have hope; my mind is free.”

She committed fraud because “it was so easy to do that it became an addiction”. Her earliest parole date is February 2016.

“It isn’t worthwhile ending up here. Some people believe you are a criminal and you are placed in a box … We are all just human; we are mothers.”

Place of safety
Vuyo Tsitshi was arrested in 2011 at Cape Town International Airport for trafficking drugs worth R600 000, after arriving on a flight from Johannesburg. She was pregnant with her second child.

“I was a mule,” she says.

She was sentenced to four years in 2012. Her baby was two months old at the time and, as a result, they were sent to the baby and mother unit in Pollsmoor.

Although Tsitshi (29) says the unit was a place of safety for her child and she had a private room with a three-quarter bed, “prison will always remain prison”.

After her child’s second birthday, she was sent to her grandmother in Port Elizabeth, and Tsitshi was transferred to the main prison before being released on parole in March. She now lives in a halfway house under house arrest.

“Being part of this play prepared me for the outside world,” she says. “When you go to prison, you think it’s the end of the world. [But] you get so used to the situation that, when it’s time to go out, you get scared. Prison feels like a second home. This is not just a drama.”

Scene from THe Outsiders
The play springs from Norway’s Varde Theatre’s Help! I Am Free programme, in collaboration with the department of correctional services. (David Harrison)

Every morning the group – parolees, inmates, directors and a social worker – meet and speak about their personal challenges. The temptations ex-offenders face in the outside world are reflected in the play.

“Without strong support systems, it’s easy to go back to prison. The community doesn’t make it easy for us.”

Tsitshi acknowledges her responsibility. “I had a choice, I was selfish, I suffered, and now I’m giving back what I can.”

Currently training as a paramedic, she decided to study because she doesn’t want her daughters to say she’s just a jailbird.

Not all the cast members are first-time offenders.

David Manuel (36) was born in Gugulethu in Cape Town. He never knew his father and left home to live on the streets when he was 13. That’s when he was arrested for the first time – and he’s been in and out of prison ever since.

Manuel’s poem is performed in the play: “It happens at night everytime/ You wake up from a wicked dream/ You wake up again in a sweaty fit …

“Oh shit, old friend, it’s getting old/ I need a place to plant my feet.”

“Me being here in prison is getting old,” Manuel says.

Fighting back
“I’m tired of coming to prison. I don’t want to come to this place any more. This drama is me fighting back, not to give up on life – to give myself a chance by being positive and involved.”

In 1997, he was arrested for housebreaking and arms theft and was sentenced to 13 years. He was released on parole in 2004.

In 2011, he was arrested for the theft of a vehicle and sentenced to a year in prison.

Three weeks after his release, he was arrested again for housebreaking and sentenced to three years. This is the term he’s now serving.

“I’m not an angel. I have realised that I hurt people. When you’re on the streets, you don’t care about people. When you’re hungry, you think in another way.”

Shane Arendse (22), the youngest cast member, met Manuel while both were living on the streets.

They were reunited in prison after Arendse was arrested for possession of drugs. He was part of the Homeless World Cup in 2010.

“I was supposed to go to Brazil but I ended up going to prison.”

Arendse was born in Netreg, a poverty-stricken area ruled by gangs on the Cape Flats. He left school after grade three and went to live on the streets. When he was 11, he was arrested for drug possession and detained in the juvenile section of Pollsmoor.

Like Manuel, he has been in and out of prison ever since, most recently in March when he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to two years.

His dream is to become a professional football player. But when he leaves prison, he will return to the streets.

“I grew up on the streets. That’s where I am most of the time.”

Xolela Kelepu (29) is a parolee and cast member. The project taught him life skills – he has learnt to communicate better and how to resolve problems.

Kelepu was born in Nyanga but grew up in the Eastern Cape. He was arrested for culpable homicide after he stabbed a man to death in Crossroads in 2008. In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years.

Kelepu loves singing and is part of the prison choir.

Tearing down barriers
He wrote matric in 2005 but failed two subjects and was due to take supplementary exams in 2006. He did not.

He completed matric last year in prison.

“You have enough time to think about your past,” he says.

“I realised that I wasted years for nothing. If I got my matric certificate in 2006, maybe now I would be something else.”

The play is open to the public. After the performance, there is an interactive discussion and the audience can address questions directly to the cast. Through this, the directors hope to tear down some of the barriers between society and ex-offenders.

“We hope to convey that, if the community don’t accept back the inmates, you will not successfully rehabilitate people,” Olderkjaer says. “You will just continue the vicious cycle of crime.”

The Outsiders is playing on Friday July 11 at 5pm and 7.30pm, and Saturday July 12 at 5pm and 7.30pm

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Shireen Mukadam
Shireen Mukadam works from johannesburg, south africa. Southern Africa Researcher, Amnesty International. Chai latte lover. From Cape Town to Geneva & back. I tweet in my personal capacity. Shireen Mukadam has over 963 followers on Twitter.

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