The Day I Died Inside

A fellow colleague and thriller writer, Margie Orford compiled a manuscript many years ago called, Fifteen Men. She had been through a similar process to myself, working with prisoners in Groot Drakenstein. Sadly, the book is out of print but this is what she says in the opening chapters:

When I first arrived at Groot Drakenstein Correctional Facility I saw fifteen prisoners, reduced to a brutal sameness by the orange or denim uniforms, by the obedient way in which incarcerated men shuffled from one place to another at the order of a guard. By my own fear of them, most of the men I was to work with are serving very long sentences, I decided that the only way I could share a creative space with them was if I did not know what crimes they had committed. Nine months later, I have piles of handwritten stories and poetry on my desk. The paper carries with it the unique smell of the prison: a dusty grey hopelessness of lives turned to ash.

I used a similar system as Margie, when I first arrived at the Meredale Correctional Facility my opening speech was that if I was to share a creative space with them then I did not need to know what they were in for. That writing is a soul journey and I was there to help them through to some form self-actualization.

They were highly appreciative of this, what they were not to know was that I was equally nervous that should I operate any other way that I might of my own volition box them into brackets of … rapist, murderer, fraudster or thief. I chose to work against my fears and I have found such amazing spirit because of that.

If people get to a point of trusting me, they do eventually confide, or their past comes out in their creative writing, or film short stories they wish to tell. But because I don’t actually know, and have chosen not to inquire, of course, I will never know which stories are true or not.

The Day I Died Inside … A creative essay I gave them to write, real or imagined, I will never know, although with good writing when one becomes adept at reading between the lines, one can tell if someone is telling the truth or if they are just bullshitting.

Here are some of the more inspiring stories.

  • The guy who’s brother was killed by gangsters – was the day he died inside.
  • The guy who tried to protect a woman from being raped by three thugs behind a pub, stabbed the one with a knife as big as a nail clipper, he died, which led to his incarceration for murder. Then he found out that the love of his life had been shot by her ‘boyfriend’. He could not get out to attend her funeral – there was nothing he could do.
  • The guy whose baby-in-arms son (a twin) died just after incarceration and he couldn’t get out to go to the funeral – that was the day he died inside.
  • Another took in a girlfriend who was being abused by her father, housed her, kept her, even got married to her before he wanted, to protect her, then the tables turned, she started abusing him, staying out late nights, drinking, he suspected sleeping around too, then she told him she didn’t love him anymore. That was the day he died inside.
  • Yet another, fell in love with a married woman who was so-called not in love with her husband anymore. She had many rich cars in her driveway, he noticed the cars but was blinded by the woman. He needed money to start a business, she gave him R50k. Next she gave him a gold watch. He accepted. Next he was arrested for murder of her husband. With the money in the bank account and the gold watch that had belonged to her husband (which he did not know) how easy was it for him to be convicted for 40 years for a brutal crime he did not commit.

It dawned on me that the day these men died inside, was not the day that they were incarcerated necessarily, but more the day that they lost a loved one.

Does that make them so different from us out here? Love is what makes the world go around.

Mostly, if they did not have their orange overalls on I would not be able to tell the difference between ‘them’ or ‘us’.

So how does one help raise the consciousness of these people who live in darkness and yet choose to strive for the light? The people who have either come from an impoverished background; the guy whose brother died which I’m pretty sure must’ve led to a revenge tactic which in turn led to his incarceration; or the guys who are here because they tried to save someone; or the guy that is innocent?

Some people are innocent, some chose anger or violence, some were hoodwinked, some just took a wrong turn in life. Sounds a bit like all of us doesn’t it?

Yet all of them, whether innocent or guilty were close enough to the danger to find themselves in chains. For me – THAT is THE LESSON.

What I admire most about these men is that although in chains, ‘walls of pain’ as one of my younger students called it, they have to live inside their memories in order to write, produce work and keep their minds sharp and well-honed.

Some of them are writing poetry books, some are writing novels, some are getting excited about the prospect of film writing …

I applaud all of them for choosing to continue to live and grow – even under duress. For having the strength of character to:

Turn Adversity into triumph.

‘Failure’ into freedom of the mind.

Lack into Abundance.

And walls of concrete into something beautiful.

Writing Blessings to all … Viva.