In Pollsmoor prison, Pastor Jonathan Clayton has started a Christian based Restorative Justice program. It consists of a 36 hour intense program spanned over 6 days, followed by a once a week follow up for 8 weeks. The goal at the end of the 36 hour portion is a dialogue between the offender and his family. The goal of the entire program is a victim/offender dialogue. Inmates in the program this week have been convicted for many different crimes and a range of sentences; armed robbery, petty theft, possession of a firearm, rape, and murder.
Pollsmoor prison is notorious for their prison gangs, specifically “the number” gangs. The number gangs consist of three separate gangs, the 26’s, 27’s, and 28’s. Many of the participants in this specific Restorative Justice program are members of “the number.” It has been awe inspiring to see the changes in the inmates throughout the week, and the changes are particularly visible in the gang members. There have been three men who have publicly denounced the gang and their authority in the gang because they want to live a crime free life from now on. The inmates have learned how to solve problems without violence, how to take responsibility for their actions, how to positively respond to guilt, and most importantly that being involved in crime and gangs is not the only way they can choose to live.
I have learned a lot of lessons through my experiences at Pollsmoor. I have learned how South African prisons work and how they differ from the United States’ facilities. I have learned that prison food is not good and there is never any toilet paper. But most importantly, I have seen the good in the inmates and their potential. One inmate, Nathan, has shocked me by his compassion and determination. Pollsmoor has a program called “the Bird Project”, which has been led for many years by Nathan. This project entails an inmate receiving a new born baby bird. The inmate then must keep the baby alive or he will have to pay the program back how much the bird costs. This teaches offenders the importance of responsibility. One hall in Medium B prison is dedicated to the bird project. The inmates have painted beautiful landscapes with all different species of birds.
I will end with one final story about Nathan. At the beginning of our trip, my roommates and my room was broken into. The pastor had told this to the group during a talk as an example of South African crime. At the end of the talk, Nathan came up to me, grabbed my hand in both of his hands and personally apologized on behalf of the burglar and his country. I was in shock. It was beautiful.