Prison initiative arrested

The Western Cape correctional services department has closed one of the world’s most innovative prison initiatives, set up in a bold attempt to address two of South Africa’s most pressing problems—Aids and crime.

The seven-year-old programme, which allowed inmates to “adopt” Aids orphans from a nearby township, initially met with some resistance because of its controversial approach, but rapidly won local and international praise.

The Group of Hope, as the programme was known, was based at Brandvlei Maximum Security Prison, a notoriously violent jail outside Worcester. It was founded by a group of inmates under the guidance of a prison social worker, Jacobus Pansegrouw.

Pansegrouw formed a partnership with Elizabeth Nkosi, previously an auxiliary social worker, who cares for more than 100 Aids orphans and vulnerable children in Worcester township.

At the heart of the programme was a scheme in which inmates who met the strict criteria for joining the group adopted orphans under Nkosi’s care.

Before the group was closed the children visited their new “fathers” at the prison each month. The prisoners grew organic vegetables for the children, made clothes and quilts for them and started other craft projects to generate income for Nkosi’s work.

The dismantling of the programme will remove one of the few successful rehabilitative projects in South Africa’s prison service.

The children are understood to be distraught. Nkosi’s only income is from a small pension and donations; the group’s financial and in-kind contributions were the main source of external support for her work.

The 20 members of the group have been taken out of their specially ­designated section of the prison and returned to the main cells. In addition to hampering their charitable work, this has stopped their skills and educational programmes for other prisoners.

Several of the group’s members have completed matric subjects and its educational and craft programmes have involved inmates throughout the prison. Before it was disbanded, more than 50 inmates a day were receiving training under its auspices.

Having run the programme successfully at Brandvlei, Pansegrouw had been trying to roll out the model across the Western Cape. At the invitation of the prison authorities, he had submitted a detailed manual to formalise the group’s operations more than a year ago, but is understood to have received no response.

Then the management at Brand­vlei abruptly halted the programme and banned the orphans from visiting. The only concession for the group is that its members can continue growing vegetables.

Pansegrouw, who declined to comment about the changes, is understood to have inquired about the suspension. He was initially told the group had been suspended because sex offenders should not be in contact with children, but countered that there were no sex offenders—one of the key prerequisites in the group’s “constitution”.

The suspension took place several months after Carol Davids took over as area commissioner. Davids was away when approached for comment. Her colleague, Linda Fortuin, area coordinator and Davids’s deputy, did not reply to a request for comment.

Formal requests for comment on the status of the group were also submitted to correctional services in Pretoria and to Pat Horn, head of Brandvlei Maximum, but no responses were received.

The reasons for the closure remain unclear, but according to some sources they relate mainly to bureaucratic infighting and jealousy about the success of the project.

The Group of Hope has attracted local and international plaudits, including from the World Bank’s Eugenia Marinova.

Asked for comment, Marinova said: “I’ve not come across a more effective, efficient and unique initiative than the Group of Hope. The impact is so striking that one wonders why such a simple idea has not been institutionalised.

“Social workers and psychologists from many countries where I have presented the project have expressed keen interest in learning and adopting such practices.”

She said this approach is perceived as a proper medium for changing criminal behaviour and perceptions, and prepares offenders for reintegration, while simultaneously bringing smiles to the faces of orphaned children.

Robyn Scott and Mungo Soggot are writing a book about the group

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