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Youths flood South African prisons

 The Big Issue South Africa 11 April 2019

South African prisons are being flooded by an alarming number of young people. They became what the director of an organisation that brings creative arts to young prisoners in Cape Town calls “universities of crime”. Tarisai Mchuchu talks about the work of Young In Prison and the difficulties that these young offenders face. (1255 Words) - By Aidan Fitzgerald


BI SA_Youths flood South African prisons

 Young in prison Photo courtesy of The Big Issue South Africa

Young In Prison, or YIP, launched in 2002 as an organisation to bring creative arts to young prisoners in Cape Town's notorious Pollsmoor prison. Since then, it has grown to include post-release and pre-release programmes which work to reintegrate kids who've been behind bars back into society, and give them that second chance they too deserve.

Mchuchu and colleague Julia Merrett, YIP's programme co-ordinator, explain how it works: "We go into Pollsmoor and we do creative life skills workshops four days a week. We work with drama, arts and crafts, photography, poetry, and a lot of creative writing. All the content created by the awaiting-trial juveniles we work with then goes into Inside Out, YIP's magazine and our main funded project.

Inside Out is edited quite consciously to give them a voice: we try to balance on that line of not wanting to shock everyone by how horrible it really is in there, but also not wanting to make it look like they're having a wonderful time. It's quite real, but we try to keep it fairly positive. Then we do an art exhibition with all the artwork that is produced by the participants and we invite community members, and we also put the magazine online.

We also do theatre with the awaiting trial juveniles, in addition to Inside Out. It's a two-week intensive programme where, for three hours a day, they work with a theatre coach from the Independent Theatre Movement of South Africa. We've also done a hip-hop/theatre project in partnership with Conscious Flows that's geared towards the same thing; planting a seed. We try to teach them hi-tech skills, communication skills, and confidence, all in two weeks.

Once the juveniles are released, we really work with them on family re-integration and trying to find a job. Basically it's mostly geared towards skills, to give them the living mechanisms to survive and live independently by themselves.

'By placing youth in a juvenile detention centre, they're really being exposed to the whole world of crime'

There is a post-release project where the idea is to get all the NGOs that work with children and youth who have been incarcerated to work together to form an employment agency. It's still a pilot programme, but the employment agency would be used as a vehicle to talk to businesses, to create partnerships with businesses and employers, in assisting the juveniles to become more employable.

There is a lot of stigma in terms of an ex-offender just walking up and saying, 'I need a job, here's my CV'. If they have a back-up and also a guarantee from the NGOs that we actually have the support system for them to function and succeed in this job, we feel as though these youths will get more opportunities.

Young people in prison are just more vulnerable and susceptible to peer pressure and that sort of thing. Some of them have come from a long history of crime but for others this is something that they only recently got into. By placing them in a juvenile detention centre, they're really being exposed to the whole world of crime.

They are separated from adults but the vulnerability is still there, the pressures are still there, particularly in the Western Cape with all the gangs. By the time they get to prison, or they're sentenced, they're already preparing themselves mentally and physically for the adult section because chances are that they will make it to the adult section. They have to constantly remind themselves that it's survival of the fittest, and that pressure is the most dangerous.

Youth at risk need alternatives to crime, they need opportunities before they commit crime… Government needs to provide recreational activities for kids and employ more social workers in communities because there's such a high demand for it. Government also needs to fix their justice department so kids don't end up in jail, so the youth stop committing crimes.

The Justice and the Police departments need to divert children away from the criminal justice system. If they're not willing or able to do the work themselves, then they need to support the NGOs with funding and resources to do the work for them.

On paper the Child Justice Act enacted last April is perfect. It's in line with the UN convention on children's rights, but the implementation is slow and the government departments are not working together. The justice department, and the courts specifically, are not sentencing kids according to what the Act says. The centres are not well funded. They don't have enough administrators or properly trained administrators to implement this Child Justice Act. So there are policies, they're just not implemented.

The best thing about YIP is just being able to give people opportunities that they wouldn't usually have. It's been amazing to see that it does actually work in practice. Seeing the families of our participants coming to our exhibition and seeing whole families looking at their child's artwork with 300 other people, it gives them a certain amount of hope - not only for their child, but also for their community.

It's also about contributing to our own safety…If we are to survive, one of the biggest things we need to fix is the prisons and the way we incarcerate and punish our people. Of course there are kids who are just delinquents, but for most of them it's survival and that's all they know. They grow up in communities where it's normal to commit crime and no-one has taught them any different. It's unfair for us not to first give them the opportunity to change before we throw them in prison.

We hope that YIP becomes a national organisation, operating in all nine provinces. We would like to spread the message and the creativity and give more young people the
opportunity to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. That's where the most work needs to be done. "


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Originally published by The Big Issue South Africa ©


South African prisons are still being flooded by an alarming number of young people, turning the prisons into what Tarisai Mchuchu, director of the NGO Young In Prison, calls "universities of crime".

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