I’m in Rio de Janeiro with my University of Michigan students but trying to catch up on blogging about my South Africa trip before I launch into our adventures in Brazil. More to come soon.
Durban, South Africa is a beautiful seaside town–not exactly the place where you’d expect to find an enormous complex of prisons known as the Westville Correctional Facility. Andy and I were introduced to both Durban and Westville by Miranda Young-Jahangeer, a professor of drama and performance studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Miranda has been doing theatre work inside Westville for the past fourteen years. She’s worked with men and youth at the prison at different times, but she prefers to work with incarcerated women and has focused on them throughout most of her time at Westville.
Miranda drove us about twenty minutes outside of Durban to the prison. Separate men’s and women’s prisons as well as youth facilities can be found inside the fences of the Westville complex, as can several rows of apartments for prison staff members and their families. One staff person told us that she chose to live inside the gates of the prison because the facility provides bus service for her child to attend the local school. She had lived somewhere outside the prison walls but had chosen to move into the staff housing in the prison complex for reasons of convenience, despite the fact that she does not like her job.
The guard at the main gate to the prison knew Miranda, and she signed a register before we drove through the entrance to the facility. The prison complex is vast, and we did not even come close to seeing all of it. Miranda parked near the women’s prison, and when we entered the building, we each signed a sheet at the front desk. We did not show identification, answer any questions, or get patted down. A guard gave visitors’ badges to me and Miranda (but not Andy because apparently men don’t need them at the women’s prison), unlocked a metal gate, and let us into the prison. Everyone there seemed to know Miranda, and undoubtedly her long relationship with this particular prison made entering it far easier than it would be for other people. In Michigan prisons, even when we know the staff well, my students and I still face some pretty significant security measures–advance security clearance, identification, metal detectors, pat downs, lots of questions about our plans for the day. It felt very odd to be able to gain access to a prison so easily in a country so vigilant about security. Miranda reminded me that the folks who run prisons in South Africa can be every bit as capricious and changeable as their U.S. counterparts. Prison authorities at Westville have have moved or cancelled performances and activities at the last minute, and Miranda has seen other groups try unsuccessfully to gain access to this facility which she and her students enter with relative ease. Prisons are nothing if not full of contradictions.
A prison staff member named Veli has worked with Miranda for many years, helping to set up the theatre workshops inside the facility. Veli’s brother had held the same position at this prison, and when he passed away, she took his place. When I asked Veli if it had taken time to build a solid working relationship with Miranda, she said that took up right where her brother left off. He had had a positive relationship with Miranda and her work in the prison, and Veli saw no reason to feel differently. Veli and Miranda led us up a flight of stairs and into a small activities room with several desks with sewing machines on them. The theatre workshop is on hiatus for a few weeks but will start up again in late August or early September. Unfortunately our travel schedule wouldn’t permit us to make the trip during a time when we could see the workshop in action. Instead we had a conversation with Miranda, Veli, and one of the incarcerated women (whom I’ll call P.) who has been doing theatre in the prison for nearly all of the fourteen years Miranda has been facilitating workshops there.
When P. came into the room, she greeted each of us with big hugs, and I was startled at how comfortable she felt in doing that, particularly with Andy–a man she’d never met. In the U.S. physical contact is strictly monitored, particularly between visitors and prisoners and between people of opposite genders. Often women in prison do not feel especially safe around men, and in the U.S. it would be even more unlikely for a prisoner and visitor to have physical contact with a prison staff person in the room. We didn’t see any male staff members working at the women’s prison, and Miranda tells me that very few male staff work there. That might explain the apparent lack of restrictions on physical touch. However, Miranda also reports that the number of incarcerated women in South Africa who report having been sexually or physically abused is above the global average, which hovers around 80%. This refers to abuse incurred prior to incarceration. I would assume that the predominantly single gender environment in female prisons in South Africa greatly reduces the amount of sexual abuse that women endure during incarceration. After reading an early draft of this blog post, Miranda also noted that P.’s hugging is a cultural signifier of her role as an older woman in the prison, a mother figure. A younger woman would not have hugged us so effortlessly, but P. did so as a way of showing that she trusts us and that we are welcome in her space.
The three of them–Miranda, Veli, and P.–asked about our work and why we were interested in theatre in prisons, and then they told us about some of the workshops and performances they have done together. Miranda teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in which students come into the prison to do theatre work. Her students will sometimes develop a performance of their own for the prisoners as a way of starting a conversation about a relevant social issue. At other times, the students work with the prisoners to devise an original performance–sometimes in response to the performance the students brought into the prison.
P. loves to sing, and music is an integral part of each performance. Most South African prisons have a choir inside them, and once a year the national Correctional Services will pay to bring the incarcerated choirs from across the country to the same prison to have a choral competition. This astounded me. The only time that I’ve ever heard of prisoners going from one institution to another to perform in the U.S. was for a huge play called The Life of Jesus Christ at Angola prison in Louisiana. For that production, which in recent years has been revived once or twice a year, women from a prison a few towns away are brought to Angola to rehearse and perform in this enormous passion play. That only requires coordination between two prisons. I can’t imagine what a logistical feat it must be to move incarcerated choirs (presumably men and women) from all corners of South Africa to a single location for a competition. A 2007 documentary film called The Choir follows one group of prisoners to the National Prison Choir Competition. I haven’t seen the film (if anyone knows how to acquire a copy, I’d be grateful for the information), but I’d love to see both the film and the actual competition itself some day.
Apparently most of the theatre work that these folks have done together in Westville has dealt with social issues of one kind or another, including HIV/AIDS, gender discrimination, and the poor treatment of prisoners. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, this is not a thing we can do in most of the U.S. because prison administrators feel that any critique of the system could lead to unrest or violence amongst the prison population. This does not seem to be the case in South Africa–or at least not in the work of theatre folks and prisoners I met. I was trying to explain to Miranda, Veli, and P. that we can’t even mention prison guards in our plays, and Veli said that if they couldn’t make fun of the guards, they wouldn’t have ever a play. Mocking the guards has been a major point of comic relief in their productions, and for the most part the guards don’t seem to mind.
In one notable production the women in the prison were responding to the terrible conditions at the prison clinic. The AIDS epidemic was claiming many lives, and often the bodies of prisoners remained in beds at the clinic for days before being removed for burial. This meant that other women confined to the clinic would have to lay for days on end next to the dead bodies of their friends. The play that the women devised about this situation included a character of a particularly unkind nurse in the clinic, and Miranda didn’t realize until the performance of the play that the nurse in question was not only a real person but was being represented in such a way that she was totally recognizable to the entire prison audience. The nurse was in the audience of the performance along with 250 incarcerated women, and at some point during the play, the nurse got up and fled the courtyard where the play was taking place. As the nurse ran away, the women in the audience all raised their arms above their head and shouted “la la la la la,” mocking her in unison. In a bizarre twist of fate, that same nurse ended up becoming a prisoner at Westville sometime later, and she joined the theatre group and became a much-beloved member of the troupe.
A performance like this would have shut down a prison theatre program in the U.S., but seemingly the only enduring consequence of this at Westville is that the audiences for the group’s plays are now much smaller. Big gatherings of the entire prison population for the sake of a performance are no longer possible, but the theatre group endures.
In thinking about the theatre work at Westville, I’m struck by how much national context and culture matter in terms of what is and is not permissible inside prisons. The legacy of Apartheid in South Africa has left people throughout the country with a publicly acknowledged sense that prisons often enforce the unjust whims of the government. In the U.S. we tend to defend our own sense of righteousness and see prisons as one part of the long arm of justice, believing that the people inside them brought all the negative aspects of their confinement upon themselves. During our trip, someone in South Africa told me that everyone in the country knows someone in prison or someone who was incarcerated at some point. South Africa has the highest incarceration rate in the continent, but the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet most of the folks I meet in my own country genuinely believe that they have never known someone who served time. This can’t possibly be true of the majority of us, but the cultural silence and stigmas surrounding incarceration prevent us from having meaningful conversations about it. South Africans continue to struggle with myriad social problems, including mass incarceration, but their ability to speak openly about this particular type of injustice is one of the things that made it possible for a former prisoner to become president and lead the country into a new era of democracy. This ability to acknowledge the problem of mass incarceration fueled by racism has certainly not led to greater justice or a significant reduction in the prison population, but I can’t help feeling like the ability to name and discuss this issue has to be a step in the right direction. How can we move towards a higher form of justice unless we can honestly describe both the world in which we now live and–to paraphrase Ghandi–the change we would like to see in our lives.