I spent the best part of one Wednesday morning trying to get into prison!
A friend had been arrested on drug possession and I had been trying to confirm her whereabouts for weeks. Arrest and imprisonment are a fairly normal feature of life for her friends and family. “She’s probably in Pollsmoor” was the rather cursory, not very concerned answer to my inquiry. I still had no definite answer when I arrived at the metal gates of Pollsmoor’s visitors centre.
Finding information about a possible inmate over the phone had also proven impossible. “Oh no, they never answer the phone.” A lady visiting her husband in maximum security told me as we waited. After a few vaguely directional pointing gestures I had found myself seated on the hard wooden benches of the visitors waiting area. Rather than conduct a study of the faded lime green government issue wall paint I managed to strike up some conversations with the (mostly) ladies waiting with me. Most of them it seemed were there to visit their husbands, brothers or sons on numerous drug related charges.
I could not help but notice the irony when the same lady who told me the prison officials never answer their phone, laughingly told me that after her husband was arrested she did not speak to him for six months. She refused to take his phone calls or come visit. “Hy het al die neighbours gecall, en vir hulle gevra om met my to praat. Maar ek will nie.” (He called all the neighbours and asked them to talk to me. But I didn’t want to)
Finally I managed to flag down a willing prison official, who sent me back the way I had come, using the obligatory vague hand gestures and mumbled directions. The lady at the computer quickly located my friend, gave me a white scrap of paper with something illegible on it and sent me back to the hard wooden benches in the waiting area. I made further conversation with the ladies waiting there. They knew all too well how the prison system worked. “This is the kind of thing you don’t want to know about,” the first lady told me. She reassured me that I should not have to wait too long. They on the other hand could possibly wait another three or four hours before they got in.
She had come with a friend whose husband and two sons were all imprisoned at Pollsmoor. Another lady told me her husband was caught with 75 Mandrax tablets in his possession. The judge set bail at R50 000. “Where am I supposed to come up with that kind of money?” she asked me.
The ladies tire of me and begin talking among themselves. “They all become so lovable when they are in jail.” they say, “But as soon as they are outside it is all the same k*k as before.”
“Except when you come visit, they all complain about the food you bring them,” “But I told him Pollsmoor is not a bladdy holiday.” a third lady speak up “Lyk die soos a restaurant vir jou?” (Does this look like a restaurant to you?)
They were soon moved to another waiting station.
I bought a coke and stared out the window at the Constantiaberg mountains, struck by the contrast between the drab and oppressive environment of the prison and the breath-taking beauty of the Cape mountains. I imagined the prisoners tortured by the beauty they were forced to endure every day knowing that for them it was off limits. I knew it was not only the bars of the prison that kept them away.
“Female” an abrasive voice rouses me from my contemplations. I swung around desperately seeking the disembodied voice that I was no longer convinced I had in fact heard. I frantically scuttled around; worried that after all this time I might miss my turn. A few minutes later I managed to locate the body to go with the voice. The voice having failed to secure an instantaneous response had understandably decided to resume her coffee drinking duties. She gave me that look of disdain that only underpaid government officials and Shoprite cashiers can give you, took my scrap of paper and told me to wait.
A few minutes later we were walking along the prison complex roads on our way to the female prison. Pollsmoor actually consists of four prisons in one complex (Maximum Security, Awaiting Trial, Female and Juvenile prisons). I was the only visitor for the female prison at this time. As we walked along another warden joined her colleague. As I listened in I managed to catch up on all the prison gossip. Romance, it would seem, is not dead in khaki uniforms. Overtime pay, however, is slightly less forthcoming.
As we arrived at our destination I was directed with the usual vague hand gesture and the formless instruction “There.” After waiting “there” for about 20 minutes I was noticed and wordlessly interrogated, with a sharp raised eyebrow gesture, as to my intent at a female prison. I managed to fumble my scrap of paper out of my pocket and stammer out my friend’s name. The warder enthusiastically (ok I made that part up) consulted a rather large printed out list and informed me she was not there. I tentatively suggested that perhaps the list was incorrect as it contrasted with the computer records.
I assumed the crash position!
Cue another one of those underpaid government worker stares reserved for those who would dare disturb crucial research into the longevity of government issue chairs. I hastily scribbled my friends name on the piece of paper shoved below my nose. As the warder moved off to eagerly correct the problem (ok I made that bit up too) of my missing friend, I resumed my long running study of the face brick wall. A few other researchers present were also too deep in study to engage in much conversation.
At this point a large, scary looking white guy arrives. The first white person I have seen this morning. He likes to talk and he is here to bail someone out. A 19-year-old girl arrested on drug charges. Large-scaring-looking-white-guy (LGLWG) finds it necessary to mention that she is a pretty white girl. The police captain who arrested her, it turns out is a friend of LSLWG’s mother and rather than see her sit in jail, the captain has decided to pay her bail on condition she goes to stay with LSLWG and his mom. I could not help wondering if this had anything to do with her being a “pretty white girl”?
I am somewhat less than surprised to discover that LSLWG has himself spent some time as a guest of the state…. more than once… “Nothing major” he shrugs, “just some GBH charges.” I decided that today I would be nice. “The longest time I spent here,” LSLWG opens up, “was about four months, in awaiting trial. Ja, and when my case finally got to court, it was thrown out the same day, because the oke who laid a charge never even bothered to show up. Four months, hey boet.” I was very sympathetic to his pain but I decided not to risk a hug.
As it turns out there is a somewhat unusual philanthropic side to LSLWG’s world. His girlfriend who runs a “massage parlour” has “rescued” a number of girls from Pollsmoor and given them a second chance and a place to stay. “They earn good money,” he admits. I catch the assumption that earning good money and staying out of jail is the equivalent of a second chance. Perhaps for many it is all the second chance they can imagine. I wish I could tell these girls that there is so much more that could be imagined than this. “Can’t your girlfriend find a place for this young girl” another lady asks. “I don’t want to get involved,” LSLWG says.
Eventually they have managed to locate my friend and I get in to see her. We talk through the glass, just like in the movies, except we don’t have those funky old school telephones. Perhaps you only get those in Maximum Security? She tells me what she thinks I want to hear. I tell her we love her and care for her. She cries when we talk about her children. She promises me she is going to sort her life out this time. I, sadly, have low expectations and big prayers. “It is almost lunchtime,” she says. I get the hint. I pray with her. It took me almost three hours to get in for a 15-minute visit.
I have to rush; I am late for lunch with a friend. No phones allowed when you enter the prison. You feel the isolation once you are inside the prison. Not even a simple phone call to let a friend know you are running late. I imagined how isolated the man whose wife refused to speak to him felt. Although LSLWG assured me that he gets calls every night from friends on the inside asking him to send them air time or Shoprite vouchers. “You will be surprised at how much money there is in here,” he told us with that knowing look.
Now I sit staring at the screen waiting for that final flow of words that lets me know my piece has ended. But there is nothing. I have no great lessons, no moral injunctions, no clever analogies. I simply spent one extra-ordinary morning experiencing the cycle of ordinary life for thousands of families, thousands of wives, mothers, fathers, children and grandfathers across our beautiful, broken city.
And where is the church at large in all of this I wonder? Busy, Silent, Sorry, Scared, Apathetic…