So, who are these women who have found themselves in this desperately frightening and lonely place?

Come and meet_

Claire - she is a beautiful girl. She is tall, with long, shiny, dark hair and clear skin, and just so pretty in every way. Young too, she is only 21 and has been in prison for a couple of years already. She was an 'A' student in matric and speaks so well, showing such natural leadership skills. Years of sexual abuse, made the use of drugs an obvious form of escape for her. Crime followed and she now finds herself with a 15-year sentence. I wonder if she will ever attend a dance, get married and have children, or a career of her own. I wonder what meaning she will make out of this prison experience and how this will shape her future and her understanding of the world. The mother in me weeps for the daughter I see in her.

Norma has never known her parents. She was raised by people and she doesn't know why they raised her, or who they are. She has no idea what happened to her own parents. She knew a tremendous amount of physical beatings and harsh treatment at the hands of these people until she ran away and married twice, each husband bringing his own kind of cruelty and abuse into her life. Finally she killed the second one and is now in prison, which offers its own kind of cruelty, inhumane conditions and its message of worthlessness, and rejection.

Tebogo killed her husband because she felt trapped by him and wanted to marry someone else. It is easy to feel less compassion for her. Perhaps it is easy to judge her - after all he doesn't seem to have been an abusive man. She was sexually abused as a child for many years though, and it would only take a few minutes to begin to see her remorse, her agony, her every second filled with suffering and torment at the thought of what she had become - what depths she had stooped to. She doesn't expect to explain away what she did. She doesn't expect you, or anyone, to accept or to love what she did. She is just overwhelmed and deeply, deeply touched that anyone should accept her and reach out to her with love and respect. It just melted her and left her awe-struck. Somehow she has to put her life back together now, knowing she has committed such an act. How does she find peace? How doe she make right, and how does she begin to rebuild?

Stella is a very young girl, whose father's beating of her mother coloured her every childhood memory. The drink, the shouting and swearing_ the volume, the shame, the fear, the powerlessness, the endless cycle of dread, fear and remorse. The aftertaste of fear and simmering anger are what she lives with now. She killed her father's new girl friend - stabbed her three times in the back with a bread knife, because when she appeared on the scene the abuse got worse, hard to believe that it could. She had not spoken about this before and she needed to just speak out the pain, the anger and the confusion a little because it eases some of the torment. I guess she is in her early twenties, but she really looks about 15 - such a baby. Now she feels even more guilt as she realises that her mother is alone with her father and that the beating and abuse and neglect continue and she can do nothing. She doesn't see her mother; in fact she doesn't get any visitors at all.

Mary's husband left her with three children, a pile of debt and a battered self-image. She agreed to be a drug courier to ease the financial burden. She was caught. Now, her ageing mother cares for her three beautiful children. They visit her in prison sometimes and tell her how well they are doing at school and on the sports field. She is delighted with them, but her heart is so sore that she can share in none of this. Mary's mom is currently employed, but the company is about to close down. Neither Mary nor her mother has any idea how they will cope. Already she is seeing them less and less.

So far 18 women have completed the course and 25 are currently involved. There are nearly 1 000 women in the Johannesburg prison and 1 000 different stories, 1 000 lives wracked with pain and guilt and so much remorse. They are desperately lonely, feel rejected and abandoned by family, loved ones, and society.

Many live in large cells, sometimes of 40 women and share one toilet and two showers with no privacy. The times keep changing, but currently they are locked in their cells at about 2pm until the next morning. They don't stand in the rain, or enjoy the sun. Many don't see their families and their children. The only space they have is their beds and a small metal cabinet. They eat food they hate and their world just keeps getting smaller and smaller.

At the end of each morning we spend at the prison, we leave for home, join our families, and sleep in our beds after warm baths in our own, private, clean bathrooms. We use the loo with privacy, decide how late we will stay up and thoroughly enjoy the hugs and loves of our loved ones. We look long at the moon, even in the cold and hear the women talking of when last they saw it _ and they begin to count back in years_

Perhaps it would be comforting to think that they are different from us - that it couldn't happen to us or our loved ones. The truth is they are just like us. They are us.

HeartWork Postal Address: PO Box 4327, Randburg, 2125, South Africa
Phone: 082-961-4074     (International: +27-82-961-4074)
E-mail: DebbieJ@global.co.za

Copyright © 2002-2003 Debbie Jones, HeartWork (Last updated on 11 April 2003)