Arts | Politics | Economy | Education & Sciences24 Nov 2017
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Young in Prison
Politics, 13 Mar. 2007 - editorial staff Africaserver

The Dutch foundation Young in Prison (YiP) focuses on improving the situation of young prisoners in countries where prison conditions are very poor. Suzanne Bessem (27) is temporary coordinator of YiP in Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town, South Africa. In this interview per e-mail, she explains how the projects work over there.
As a Dutch person, how did you get to become coordinator in Pollsmoor?

When our coordinator in South Africa became pregnant, we at YiP needed someone who could take over her job fast. I was coordinator for South Africa in The Netherlands and had just been to Cape Town to get a better view of how YiP functions in South Africa. So at that time I was the most knowledgeable of the work that’s being done in Cape Town. Usually we work only with staff from the country itself, but in this case there was no one that we knew well enough to offer this position. That’s why I’m here now as a temporary coordinator. I am looking for a South African coordinator who can take over the work here in Pollsmoor.

What’s the idea behind Young in Prison?

Young in Prison started 4 years ago when Noa Lodeizen, studying Cultural and Social studies, did her internship in Cape Town. She worked together with children from the street and noticed that when they had been in prison, they came out traumatized as well as more criminal than before. She decided to organize cultural-educational workshops for the youth in Pollsmoor to aleviate their situation a little. Now, four years later, YiP has projects in Suriname, Colombia and South Africa. The projects range from poetry to hiphop dancing, where the goal is always to teach things in a positive way, in order to help young people reintegrate successfully after they are released.

What’s the situation in South African prisons like, especially for the youth?

The biggest problem for the youth is the fact that prisons can’t protect them. After one-thirty everybody’s locked up in overcrowded cells and there is no supervision on what’s happening inside. For protection young people are forced to join one of the notorious ‘gangs’, that rule the prison. Violence is inherent to gang culture, where especially sexual violence is a prominent problem, because it leads to the fast spread of HIV/Aids.

Do you have statistics on the youth in Pollsmoor?

I know only that in Pollsmoor there are 10.000 prisoners, of which 2.000 are 21 years or younger, that Western Cape (province with Cape Town as capital) has the highest number of young people in prison and that 8 of 10 prisoners that are released end up back in prison.
Which activities do you have in Pollsmoor?

In Pollsmoor at the moment (with support of the NCDO) we organize three poetry projects (for girls, for children and for youths), where writing poetry is combined with learning life skills, like teamwork, expressing yourself in a non-aggressive way, language skills and speaking in front of an audience during the presentation for parents and prison personnel. This year there will be another radio project where young people learn the basics of making radio, like conducting interviews, using recording equipment and etc. Also, all youths that have participated in our projects get counselling to help reintegration after their release from prison. Because of the high number of recidivism, this is an integral supplement to our projects.
The emphasis is on creativity, don’t the youths need more practical skills in stead?

Practical skills play an important role in reintegrating into society. Pollsmoor already devotes their attention to this. What’s missing are life skill programs. In Pollsmoor there is one psychologist and a handful of social workers (for 10.000 prisoners). I have noticed that during our projects youths are stimulated to think for instance about what friendship is for the first time. They find out that when a ‘friend’ gave someone a weapon to kill somebody else, that person might not have their best interest in mind. During a creative process you can create an atmosphere in which subjects like this can be addressed in a playful manner. You can give them a teacher that dictates these things to them, but it’s much more effective to let them find it out for themselves during a creative process.
What kind of reactions do you get from the youths, parents, staff members and other people that are involved?

The youths think the projects are great. Never has any of our employees felt threatened, because the projects are a welcome distraction from the terrible situation in prison. What’s more, the youths have the feeling that there’s someone on the outside, that keeps an eye on what happens within the walls of the prison. Parents are delighted to see during the presentations of their children that there is also something positive going on inside the prison and that there is a foundation that cares for these children. Society, that has often been traumatized by these young people, is far less understanding and don’t care much for the conditions of these youths who have made the choice to become a criminal.
Do the authorities offer assistance?

There is some support, but the prison is very sensitive to criticism. That’s a shame because together we would have a much better chance of rehabilitating these youths.

Can you give us an idea of the results thus far?

Results are difficult to measure. But during a pilot for the reintegration project none of the youths that were part of our projects have returned to prison. That gives us hope, although I don’t have the illusion that you can keep everybody from returning to criminal life. For me the idea is important that every child must have had an opportunity to choose another way of life. If the child actually does or does not choose a life away from crime is a choice that they must make themselves, but at least the opportunity must have been there. So I would say that our projects make sure that young people get the chance to excercize their right to develop themselves in a positive way. In that sense there is not really a bar to measure the results by.

How important are local employees? What’s their role?

In principle we only pay for the local staff members. In the Netherlands everybody works on a volunteer basis and Dutch people in foreign countries usually do their work as a part of their study or as a volunteer as well. Eventually we would like YiP in South Africa to become a South African foundation, with YiP in the Netherlands merely as a partner, where decision-making is completely in South African hands. All the projects are executed by South African people and recently the management has become South African as well.
What does Young in Prison do in the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands about 20 enthusiastic volunteers organize a yearly auction of photographs, where photographers donate their work and the profit goes to YiP. We also organize smaller beneficiary events focused on young people. Furthermore for each country a coordinator has been appointed in the Netherlands that keeps close contact with the local coordinators from each country. We make plans for projects, take a look at other people’s plans for projects and we look for sponsors to execute those projects in foreign countries.
What is it that you need the most?

It’s still difficult to guarantee continuity in the Dutch foundation as well as in the foreign branches of the foundation. Donors are usually prepared to invest in one project but not to cover the regular costs that come with running the organization, like paying the accountant and other people that give this organization structure. Furthermore we need many people to attend our events of course, and people with good ideas for projects in foreign countries that they are willing to help realize with us.
Do you expect that YiP will develop similar activities for other South African prisons?

Yes! We have already started investigating other prisons around Cape Town. In Johannesburg prison situations for young people seem to be terrible as well. We have also visited several youth shelters. The South African government is trying to place more youths in these shelters to prevent them from being exposed to prison life, but this is actually not preventing the whole gang behavior and it doesn’t lead to less violence. In the future we would want to offer internships in these youth shelters as well, since there’s also a lot of work to be done there
Willem Kerkhoven
On the site of Young in Prison you can read everything on the progress of the projects, the last developments and current beneficiary events.

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