Torch of Tenacity Women’s Prison

Walking into a classroom at the Women’s Prison

Consider yourselves walking down a long murky, concrete corridor in the middle of winter, where the cold damp seeps into your bones, so chilling that the mere attempt of colourful butterflies, plump ‘botticelli’ ladies sitting at tables and green-painted foliage, drawn on these dank walls by people with an urgent need to overcome adversity jump out at you as expressions of cheerful life outside the prison walls.

Then consider walking into a classroom of chatty women where the comeraderie is grumbles of daily life, or poignant collaboration of each other’s pain of heartfelt circumstances. Like treasures shared amongst only those who dare to see or hear, I was fortunate enough to be one of those lucky people and have been humbled by the experience. Their need to overcome isolation with a hunger to learn and transform is palpable. My meagre offering felt like a blessing that came back to me ten-fold as a shower of gratitude for the work that I am doing there.

In their stories they are free. They dare to travel to places that before now have been hidden, even from themselves. By so doing they come to terms with their incarceration by breathing into their souls and finding new life with stifled voices that until now they have not dared to access.

When I started this project in 2014, I had recently lost my job at a leading Film College in Johannesburg, SA. For the second time in recent years, my source of income ripped from my gut, my colleagues amputated from my life, and an academic world of creative self-expression and my very own self-actualization sagaciously diminished by circumstance not of my own doing. Not wanting to forfeit academia nor creativity, not even I had an understanding of the passion with which teaching was a calling for me or how fate would find a way. Wracking my brains to find a world in which I could continue researching and gathering material for my film I was writing at the time on prison gangs (started 2009) I wanted to become a teacher like the great film-writing mentors who had taught and inspired me. I wanted to change people’s lives – it worked. (See testimonials

It took one year of teaching ‘blind’ negotiating for the right contacts and contracts, without any real background or understanding of the prison circumstances and in 2015 Greenlight Foundation NPC (GF) was born. Quality Assured by DCS we have been teaching ever since: once a week in 2014 and 2015 in the Male section only; and twice a week: in both male and female sections in 2016 and 17.

The critical issues with this program are that need to be addressed.

There are only five broad categories that can constitute a conviction:

  1. Theft and petty crimes
  2. murder (or violence related crimes),
  3. sex crimes,
  4. drug trafficking,
  5. or fraud.
  6. (Political offences have fallen away since 27 April 1994 liberation).

Nationwide, these offenders are in the region of 160,000 (Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele quoted 156,370. News 24, 2013). In Meredale prison in the sections where GDP (Greenlight) teaches, there are approximately 20,000 altogether with males, female, and those waiting on remand. In Greenlight’s section there are potentially 500 offenders in the male study block and 1,000 in the Female section.

SA rate of imprisonment per capita of 100,000 citizens is the highest in the world followed by United States, China, Russia, Brazil, then India and Mexico. We are the highest in Africa. (See statistics on Every month 23,000 offenders are released and replaced by 25,000 coming into the system. (Sibusiso Ndebele. News 24, 2013). These are staggering statistics …

So us, Greenlight District Project (GDP) offers another option than a life of crime by accessing students with a thirst for knowledge, hunger for information outside of the prison walls and a will to transform. GDP gives a golden fishing rod of support that people find when they are ready for it.

Gangsters interestingly have not obviously ‘found’ this programme, perhaps they are not willing to transform? Or perhaps they have seamlessly transformed and I only get students who are willing participants?

Either way, the problem that GDP solves and resolves is potential freedom for all of us.

Imagine if we can raise a nation full of storytellers instead of criminals?

Wouldn’t that be great? People write books in prison – why not film?

The ethos of African stories is rich and powerful. We are a musical, rhythmic and creative nation so if we can tap into the underbelly, people thrown away by society we can transform ourselves from the inside out and pulsate way beyond our borders.

Please join us in supporting this fabulous project.

Writing blessings.

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