Before we tell you about the work we are doing in the prison, we'd like to give you a feel for the environment. Will you allow yourself to come to prison _ even if just for a few minutes? We'd like to give you a feel for the environment.
* Sit comfortably in your chair - hands and legs unfolded
* If you can, close your eyes.
See yourself sitting on the edge of the bottom bed in a double bunk bed. There are another 39 people sharing the room with you. Someone has a radio on, but it seems far away. Others are talking in a huddle in the distance. They came to talk to you when you first arrived, but now you are alone. They wanted to know why you were in prison. What you had done. There was some fighting about which bed you should get and then everyone wandered off. You have never felt so alone in your life. You never believed that it would ever come to this. A prison sentence.
As you sit there, you think of the dreams you had - the plans for the rest of your life. Plans to fix up the house, to save money, to buy a car _ plans for holidays, movies you wanted to see. You remember your dreams of seeing your children grow up and being there for them. Watching them get married and bring grandchildren into the world.
You remember things you wanted to do - things that seemed so important - things that filled your life and are now gone. It feels right now as though everything has gone - is there anything left? Your chest tightens and a sense of panic rises in you.
Your thoughts wander to your family. You see the faces of your parents _ your friends _ your manager and work colleagues _ They were all so shocked _ so disappointed in you. You remember the expressions on their faces. They were angry that you had let this happen.
You sat in court and heard your sentence being read out, and your children wept and pleaded for the court not to take you away from them. Those cries still ring in your ears _ Your gut tightens with guilt and anguish. You know in this moment that you have failed everyone. How will you ever face them again?
Who will visit you in prison? How will it feel to see them _ in a busy room with lots of other prisoners seeing their family and friends - no private time or space. In fact no more privacy - ever. What will you say to them? How do you feel?
Now think of the people who will not visit you? People you may never see again. People who are too far away - people who are too ill or old - people who are too angry and hurt and who feel too betrayed by you _ What do you feel as you think of them? You remember your father is in hospice with cancer. He will never be strong enough to come and visit. Tears stream down your face and a sob gulps in your throat as you realise that the last thought he will have of you, is your crime and your sentence_
You think of your children. You remember family times _ Christmas when everyone comes to your house and you wear silly hats and eat dinner together _ birthdays when the whole family climbs into your bed to open their presents before the day begins - it seems so far away now - so much is lost.
While you are in prison, your children will have successes: they will win races, do well in school or be accepted in the first rugby team - and you will not be there. You will not share their joy and their pride.
Your children will have things happen to them that will hurt them and things that they are afraid to face alone _ Your child has to have their tonsils out, or visit the dentist and you will not be the one to hold their hand. You will not be there for them. They will have friends leave them or boy friends break up with them and they will feel hurt and alone, and you cannot comfort them. They will face their friends and feel humiliated to tell them that their mother is in prison. Maybe you can get a few minutes on the public phone if you have a phone card, and there will be others talking on the other phones around you and crowds waiting for the phones and shouting for you to finish _
Now think of how you have often felt toward criminals. Remember thinking - they deserve to be there - lock them up and throw away the key, we don't need them here - they have failed - they are a disgrace - they pull the country down - no matter how desperate the prison conditions are, they deserve what they get_ Realise as you sit here, that no one respects you, there is a hostile society out there who do not feel empathy toward you, but hatred. They are facing crime daily, where people are taking their things, killing or harming their families and hi-jacking their cars. They don't want you out.
As you look around and see rows and rows of steel double bunks covered with grey blankets, and standing on a hard, polished floor, icy under your feet, you remember your home. The beautiful things in your house _ the photographs, your favourite room _ your garden and the new things you have planted. You remember your freedom to come and go - the space - the opportunity to be alone _ or to be with others - to choose your friends.
You become aware of a nasty smell - the overwhelming smell that reaches you now is the smell of cabbage that has cooked too long. Know that this is a smell you will smell every day. What you eat is no longer your choice. A coke or a chocolate will become like gold and should you ever get your hands on one, you will have so many people fighting you for it, it will hardly seem worth it.
At night, people around you will smoke dagga and you will just smell that sweet, smoky smell as they try to fall asleep and escape the pain and horror of where you are - where people treat you like dirt, roughly, loudly, with no respect _
You feel ill. You get up to go to the bathroom. There is one toilet between 40 of you and two shower heads - with no door. How will you manage? No privacy. People walk away with their panties around their ankles to make room for the next to go in. How humiliating. The stench is overwhelming. You feel the nausea and panic rising - everyone's telling you to hurry - they are all waiting and watching, but its so hard to do anything. Finally a few drops of wee trickle out and you are relieved to leave. The toilet won't flush again so soon, you just leave it and the next person sits down. You wonder what will happen when you have your period. Women tell you that sometimes they run out of sanitary towels and it is so hard to borrow enough toilet paper. You remember how private you are about these matters and how clean. How will you ever manage that here? This horrible place is so frightening, so absolutely terrible - - - and it feels like it is forever.
Feel the chair beneath you - feel the air around you.
Become aware of the other people in this room.
Now remember where you are. Sitting in your own chair.
When you are ready, open your eyes.
Become aware of what you are feeling now - the heaviness in your heart and the tightness of your stomach.
These women in the Johannesburg Female Prison are just women - they really are you and me.
Postal Address: PO Box 4327, Randburg, 2125, South Africa
Phone: 082-961-4074 (International: +27-82-961-4074)
Copyright © 2002-2003 Debbie Jones, HeartWork (Last updated on 11 April 2003)