Life, thugs & social rehabilitation

My interview with a volunteer social worker at Pollsmoor prison.

Emotional intensity heats up and takes over the room when one individual’s adamant request for another spoonful of sugar is denied. Raised voices of convicted men seeking respect for the lady in the room only leaves an unfamiliar heart beating in anticipation of the first stroke of a heavy punch.

“What’s going on here? I’m not sure why people put their noses in other people’s business. He asked me for more sugar. I am capable of replying to him myself if I would want to give him more sugar or not.” The command of a female social worker puts order back where order need be.


Pollsmoor prison houses 7000+ inmates to date. A number that changes every single day. Close to doubling the occupancy, it was intended for, 4336 inmates. From what might be seen as chaos from the outside, is indeed structured and in part, run by the gangs, the numbers gang. The 26’s, 27’s and 28’s have an unspoken system that works well for order within the 100 inmates to 1 warden ratio. Consequently, this scenario makes it a real struggle for rehabilitation to take solid form. Overcrowding of the prison leaves the rest of this sardine tin structure strategically broken into 4 sections of housing, Medium A, Medium B, Medium C and the female section.

In-house segregation

House occupancy type

Admissions/Maximum – Waiting trial prison
Medium A Juvenile – sentenced and unsentenced, adults unsentenced
Medium B – A mix of further charged sentenced adults
Medium C – Pre-release

Here, in medium C, the pre-release section of Pollsmoor, inmates are on their best behaviour. Some seeking professional services from the few social workers available and, more so, who are willing to invest their talents in the forgotten souls of society, to aid in making better life choices intended to be practised right away and most importantly for when they are sent home.

How are these social workers able to defeat bad and allow good to prevail? The answer is simple – the deep-rooted connection they have to drive social change. Celeste van Es is a volunteer social worker at the maximum security prison. She has dedicated 3 years to positive impact at Pollsmoor. She started her own initiative about a year ago introducing and getting buy-in to run with a leadership program within the grounds of the jailhouse. These classes are open to all pre-release inmates who serve from 1 month – 15-year sentences. Some of the wardens have also signed up for this course. The only rule is this – dedication to the 7 week course is binding. If a class is missed without a valid reason, the certificate will not be issued, and it will be noted in the report back to the board.

Today is the big day.
Graduation day.

Screen. Scan. Sign in. Enter. The orderly step-by-step protocol when anything or anyone inhabits the cold bare walls of Pollsmoor prison. A naked feeling indeed when nothing is allowed past the charcoal turnstiles except human flesh, the iron-safe drapes covering it, and the obeying intentions of the mind. Beyond these gates, a mouse is able to deafen the sterile corridors with a single peep echoed off its tongue.
It is 09:00am. and Mr Zibongile, the warden in charge today leads the way. “Are you ready?” he asks. He and Celeste have a casual conversation about the days gone by since they’ve seen each other while waiting for 2 more wardens to take the journey with them into the yard. The klink of a giant key opens the gateway to a world unseen. A quad the size of a school playground is center to the 14 cells known to house inmates up to a density of 28 each. Casual wear individuals are immediately noticed amongst the brown uniformed wardens through the 20cm vertical lines, reaching high above thick white steel doors of confinement.

Good mornings are passed around with encouraging smiles as the men who will be joining the program are collected one by one from the cells. One cannot ignore the unholy stench exiting the cell doors colliding with the fresh outdoor air, reaching unsuspecting nostrils. Improper comments fly towards the females making us feel as if we were on stage shaking it for cash. Immediately this behavior is corrected by Celeste who gives a lesson in respecting women right away.

Every single name is accounted for before another klink of the keys unlocks the door to the passage leading to the room of change. The wood-carved benches are stacked in neat rows in a 6x4m room that hold tales of darkness and hope all at once. The guys quickly demonstrate gentlemanly manners and assist Celeste to hang up the posters of the lessons learnt in the weeks that had gone by.

The class officially begins.

She then goes on to ask each person to give a short introduction of who they are and to name 1 thing that makes them happy. There was a slight hesitation, but with a nudge to start the exercise from the most vocal person in the room, the ambience settled to a relaxed and trusting setting. She earnestly listened and cheered each person on to be who they are, and to show that every person is special in their own way. Calm, social surroundings, partnered with walls of trust brings out talk and the healing begins.
Positive thoughts. Laughing. Trust. Sharing. For some, this is a first experience. Many of these inmates start their drug peddling life at toddler age delivering small quantities of marijuana or, more popular, tik (crystal meth) from their neighbourhood suppliers to clients, forced to grow up fast and streetwise never knowing another way to live. For most this way of life is a propeller in and out prison brewing a thug life repeating old crime or advancing to higher crimes, making it a highly frustrating situation for
Celeste to combat. Once upon a time, their only goal had been to survive or to make it big as a gang member. Today, after a considerable amount of effort, these men can talk to her and open up about repressed feelings which eventually led to them realising their mistakes and ultimately what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

The leadership program covers 6 important lessons.

  1. Changing poverty thinking
  2. Breaking generational walls
  3. Characteristics of a good leader
  4. Leadership for the benefit of others (writing your story)
  5. The 7 mindsets of a good leader
  6. The 5 stages – where to from here?

Inside out

Reflecting on the lessons learnt, each person chooses 2 lessons that hit deep and sign their name on the white paper poster on the wall. Celeste requests that each person explains why they had chosen these lessons and what their greater yes will be when leaving Pollsmoor.

“Your greater yes is what you will focus on instead of the bad.” This brings out a new way of thinking and understanding about choices.

Many speak about how they will quit drugs, spend more time with their families and succeed in businesses. Celeste too shares her story and how she had overcome her life struggles as a demonstration on how things can turn out good with perseverance. Reflection takes her back 7 weeks. “You guys were closed off and shy and now look at

The little ghetto blaster plays some dance funk as the coke, and hot chocolate is poured into the styrofoam cups. “Oh gosh! I forgot to grab your NikNaks Donny. I got some Big Korn Bites though.” Celeste says. She has packed a pick ‘n Pay carrier full of treats for the graduation ceremony today. The plastic packet of the hot dog rolls is sliced open with a piece of broken mirror serving as a knife not bothered if it would be used to slit someone. Donny asks for more sugar to hold in a cup for later when he goes back to his cell. He placed the cup with sugar under his seat close to his feet and soon realises it
had disappeared.

The relaxed vibe takes a slight twist and heads in for a bit of squandering when Donny insistently insists on more sugar. The rest of the guys are frustrated that Donny can be so obnoxious to ask for yet another helping of sugar. Celeste takes hold of the situation and realises that Frankie took his cup of sugar in a naughty streak to cause a little drama to unfold.

Another life lesson taught. “The whole time you were accusing him of being disrespectful his sugar was taken away. See what I mean? I’m not sure why people put their noses in other people’s business. He asked me for more sugar. I am capable of
replying to him myself if I would want to give him more sugar or not.” As a family, it is evident how attached Celeste has become to these guys and scold at them for acting up.

“I do this because these guys have it in them to do good. They see me as their big
sister. Someone they wish they had on the outside.” Celeste says.

The announcement is made to settle down. She lets them know how proud she is. The certificates are handed out followed by slow claps and cheering as each person collects their leadership graduation certificate with a handshake and a smile.

It is now when her true efforts of Celeste shines through. August makes an eloquent speech of appreciation to Celeste.

“Thank you for the lessons you taught me. I am saying this to myself that I will do these things when I leave here. I am not going to say it to my friends nor my family. I am going to say it to myself and God then I know I am doing it for me.”

Medium C is Pollsmoor’s gateway to the outside world. It is also the crux of shifting a bad mindset to good. In here Celeste prepares hardened folk for life outside the boundaries of hardcore prison life, to face real hard challenges once again. It will be then we have a think of what she, as an individual, and the few like her is doing to make a difference in our gang banged society.
Lisa Marqua has volunteered for an active 12 years at Pollsmoor. She works with Celeste dedicating her time to teaching skills to make choices that will have a positive outcome. They follow a structured plan initiated by Lisa called the Restorative Justice class or better known as the “RJ class” scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday mornings for short 2.5 hours each. This method allows them to teach inmates what agonising effects their bad behaviour has caused their victims, aiming to create a sense of guilt which is crucial for the psychology of rehabilitation.

“We had one young man who had 21 victims in his case. He had been in prison for 18 months and commented that he didn’t like our classes. When asked why, he said he was feeling guilty. He said he had 21 victims in his case and had never once thought about them while in prison. He also then asked if there was more he could do other than just sit and do his time.” Lisa says.

These ladies continue their stride to make the world a better place. “We need more hands. We are only 3 full-time volunteers within our group.”


A human act is a feeling of needing to belong. What could this teach us? Should we all rely on our superhero social workers to pick up the slack of society? We should all aim to be our best selves every day. It starts with one.
*The real names of the inmates and guard are not mentioned in this article.
For more information visit the website – Pollsmoor Prison
To get involved visit the Facebook page – Pollsmoor Inside Out

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