It is even unusual, if not unheard of, for outsiders to mingle with convicts beyond the no-contact glasses that separate them and the outsider.
In most cases, the so-called contact visits are reserved for Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. But these are organised in such a manner that visitors sit across the table from their convicted friend or relative with whom they will share a "special" meal brought from the outside. An exception was, however, made this week when the gates and doors of the Medium C Section of the Johannesburg Correctional Centre, aka Sun City, were thrown open to a select group of 30 people, including journalists.
The excursion was aimed at showcasing the work that the City of Johannesburg's Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture - through its community outreach programme - was doing to enhance the inmates' personal development.
"We work with the inmates through a committee that organises sporting and cultural activities in the prison with the support of the facility's management," says Councillor Chris Vondo, MMC for Community Development.
The programme includes aerobics, soccer, table tennis and board games such as chess, draughts and morabaraba. This is an ongoing programme," says MMC Vondo.
"Today's event is a culmination of this year's activities as the facility goes into lockdown ahead of the festive season."
The programme will restart early next year. The prisoners in the Medium C Section are long-term inmates, serving sentences of between 10 years and life imprisonment.
So it was no surprise that a group of outsiders was going to be subjected to a rigorous, procedurally enforced access to the exercise area of the section.
Entry from the prison grounds into the Medium C Section is gained through a remote-controlled gate operated by a warder. Oh, and there are traffic lights, too!
They are red when the gates are closed and turn green when they are open! After everyone had entered, we had to sign a register on the rickety desk behind which three warders sat. They were friendly, courteous and helpful.
After everyone had signed the register, we were buzzed through the second gate. We ascended a flight of stairs and were ushered into a tiny waiting room with a bench. After being frisked, we turned right into a corridor, with an office to our left equipped with a grille door and a counter with metal bars. On this counter was a register on which we had to fill in our names after confirming our details on the list provided by the event’s organisers. Entry past this office was further controlled by submitting one’s ID or driver’s licence to the warder standing with her back to another grille gate. A courteous and friendly atmosphere was evident throughout this process. There was even good-natured banter from the warders.
We were then ushered into what looked like a conference room with at least six rows of wooden benches. Here a convict, let’s call him Victor, sat on an elevated podium in front of us. With a clean-shaven head and a healing scar above his left eye, he was eloquent – in English – as he told us of the programmes he and his fellow Medium C inmates were involved in.
"Medium C Section is a centre of excellence," he told us, adding more than 80% of inmates were pursuing various studies.
Some want to complete their grades 10, 11 and 12 studies, while others are pursuing post-matric qualifications through institutions such as Unisa and Damelin. Personal development programmes were encouraged among the inmates, Victor said, and prison management was very supportive of such endeavours.
"As perpetrators of crime, we want to help address the fight against this problem besetting our country. We only become aware of the magnitude of crime in our country when we are behind bars and talk about the reasons that led to all of us being here,” he said.
He pointed out that these personal development programmes also helped to give the juveniles the opportunity and motivation to improve their lives and steer clear of crime. He said other programmes included weekly visits from religious leaders and psychologists, who help inmates deal with spiritual and mental challenges.
“The rehabilitation of prisoners while serving sentences is very important, and preachers and psychologists help in facilitating this process,” he added.
Victor ended his presentation by extolling us to join him and his fellow inmates in the exercise yard for a few hours of fun, which included board games, soccer, aerobics, table tennis and other performances, among others, poetry, music and dance. Mandlenkosi Khoza, from Bergville in northern KwaZulu-Natal, who is serving an 18-year for various violent crimes, has happily availed himself to learn some useful lifeskills offered behind bars.
He has attended art classes facilitated by a fellow inmate and has learned to draw and create art works. He proudly showed off four of his planned Big Five creations - the lion, rhino, elephant and buffalo, and is in the process of creating the leopard. All the four creations have an uncanny resemblance to the real thing: a male lion with a thick mane, the elephant with its tusks, the rhino with the horns, and the buffalo with curled horns.
“What I need is art paint that will help give my creations some character because they are now all grey and drab. Paint will also help to make the art works stronger and not break easily,” he added.