The first time I went into a prison was two years ago and I really wondered what I was going into. I wondered what the women would be like. I wondered if they would be educated or uneducated_ and I suspected uneducated. I wondered if they would be clean or dirty and smelly. I wondered if I would have anything in common with them, or if there was any part of me that would be able to connect. I wondered what they would wear and we were warned to dress down so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I wondered if they would come in with orange uniforms or stripes. I had no idea.

And so it was with a lot of apprehension that I waited for them to come in to the course we were involved with at that time. I was so amazed, in fact, I was shocked. I just saw women. Some were big and some were small. Some were black and some white. Some are beautifully dressed with their hair and make-up impeccably in place, while others clean the long corridor floors and don't look up. They seem to be shadows of people, people who have lost part of themselves in their own personal struggle a long, long time ago.


Some of the women are just young girls (Sonya / Alma). In every way I want to take them into my arms and care for them. I want to protect them from this place. I want so much for them to have a life with all that life promises us when we are young. All the happy endings we hope for. As is, some of these girls will come out when they are 40 or 50 years old. How can they still have a meaningful life outside of prison?


Many of them are women with children. One of the ladies tells us how her three teenage sons reacted when they heard she was sentenced. The oldest cried in court and shouted out, please don't take our mother away, how will we manage without her.

(Connie) A beautiful young woman, with black hair, completely striking in appearance, has two young pre-school children. She has recently had reports that they were being sexually molested and now has social workers and other professionals looking into it. She weeps so hard into my shoulder. The process is slow. She can do nothing for them. She now feels guilty for her first crime, but tried several times to commit suicide over the Christmas break because she cannot live knowing she has let them down.

Another woman also sobbed uncontrollably as she told us how her teenage daughter had been raped in a place of safety.


As these women talk about the abuse in their children's lives I remember hearing some of their stories as they spoke about the abuse in their own lives. Such horrible unending cycles where the abuse and dysfunction just continue through generations.

Connie with the pre-school children, was sexually and physically abused for many years. She was locked in cupboards for hours and days. She knew only extreme forms of harsh beatings. She turned to drugs to cope with the pain and anguish in her early teens - about 13 years old and then became a Satanist. She lived on the streets, and sold sex to buy drugs and survive.

When she found she was pregnant, she decided she needed to turn her life around, and started trying to pull out of these things. Its not that easy though. She married a man who looked like he could care for her and ended up with more abuse. Now she is in prison. Her mother suffers from such depression that she can hardly go on. Connie can do nothing.

This is what we try to do with our Heartwork Personal Growth Course, which is offered to groups of 25 women, by a team of six volunteers over 12 weeks.


Some women in prison still have parents who are alive and who do care about them. Some of these parents live far away and these women do not get visitors or support from their families, others stay closer but are angry and resentful and refuse to visit. One woman in prison now, a really lovely young woman, has her father in a hospice with cancer. She realises with heart-wracking sobs that she will probably never see him again. She can't even go to the funeral because her family are too embarrassed by her.


A lady on the course now, has not told her family where she is. She has told them that she got a job in London and is working there. She only calls them and only at numbers where she knows they will not track her down. She is so alone. She is so burdened by this lie, but can't see any other options.

But the problem with no visitors is not only the lack of emotional support, it also means that the women don't get some of the basic essentials they need. Visitors can take toiletries in. Women who don't get visitors only get a few supplies from the prison. They get some soap and some sunlight soap for washing their clothes. They get toothpaste and some sanitary products. Many find this is insufficient. They do not get shampoo or deodorant, sponges or face cloths. They often run out of sanitary towels while they have their period and have to try and borrow very flimsy toilet paper. There is so much indignity, so much aloneness _ for those who do not get visitors.


With these women in mind and with these needs in mind, we developed a course that would begin to empower these women. It would give interpersonal skills, relationship management, give more control of anger and confrontation. But above all, would restore dignity.

This is done over a 12-week period. Six of us go in and we cover a different topic each week. We look at feelings, and abuse and boundaries, anger, etc.

The course also contains some fun elements - its amazing to hear these women laugh, and creativity. The course finishes with a certificate ceremony. It is here that the women talk about the impact of the course in their lives, and get to spend time with family. They are each given a certificate and a gift pack of toiletry items.

7.1. Restorative justice

The process of Restorative Justice is introduced during the course and we offer continued support for those interested in pursuing this difficult but necessary process after the course has ended. The response has been so encouraging.

7.2. Support programme

We have submitted a proposal for a programme of ongoing support and development for the women who have completed the Personal Growth Course. This programme will include all past participants and will be run in the form of monthly seminars, covering some old topics more deeply and including new subjects as well. Restorative Justice will continue to be a significant part of these exercises. We plan to run the first session of this programme on 10th April this year.


There is a way we can make a difference in the lives of these and other incarcerated women, and, while we are at it, change the picture of crime in our country. If these women are able to leave prison more whole and more skilled, they will have so much more to offer their families and society.

The women are desperate for opportunities to change and to grow. We are currently involved with our second Personal Growth Course at the prison and there are lists of women waiting to get onto the course. They stop us in the corridors and ask when the next one will begin and what they can do to get onto it.

Please partner with us in this and help us to make a difference.

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)