By Deborah Cuthbert
One of my favourite musicals is Les Misérables. Jean Valjean, an ex-prisoner, faces rejection by society until he is taken in by Bishop Myriel. During the night, however, he ransacks Myriel’s house and flees, but is caught and brought back. Instead of condemning him, Myriel gives Valjean two silver candlesticks which he said Valjean “forgot” and tells him to “go and make an honest man of himself.” As Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean makes good on this “promise” and prospers as a factory owner, upstanding citizen and mayor. However, he is doggedly pursued by policeman Javert, who wants to unmask his true identity. What a picture of the journey an ex-offender makes back into society– where he or she faces too many Javerts and too few Myriels!
While for some, an offender’s time in prison results in an individual turning from crime, this is not the norm. An estimated 85% of the 6 000 people released monthly from prison in South Africa go on to reoffend. The offender spends days of little activity in close proximity to seasoned criminals and prison gangs. They also lose contact with law-abiding support structures such as employment, friends and family. When they leave prison, their needs are great. It’s not just about ensuring that they have accommodation, food and work – they need a lot of support and guidance.
What can individual Christians do?
There are a number of NGO’s and ministries involved in working with offenders, such as NICRO, Young in Prison, Prison Care and Support Network, Realistic, Prison Fellowship International, Andrew Murray Centre and Hillsong. I will concentrate on some of the things done by Hope Prison Ministry, with whom Common Good partners. Last year, I had my first opportunity to visit Pollsmoor Prison and sit in on a Hope course. I had always been intimidated by the thought of going into prisons and speaking to prisoners, but found that I actually enjoy going and speaking to them.
What can I do?
A lot! How about:
Praying for those involved in working with ex-offenders; for the ex-offenders themselves and their families and victims?
Donating non-perishable items to the Hidden Treasures shop in Plumstead or volunteering a few hours a week there (they’re at 142 Main Road – tel 071 861 2283)?
Joining prayer walks at Pollsmoor on the first Thursday evening of every month? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for the next one – you’ll need to send through your full name and ID number.
Working with the prisoners themselves? Hope Prison Ministry runs Bible studies, skills and arts programmes and restorative justice courses (which aim at enabling the perpetrator to seek forgiveness from the victim and/or his or her family).
Thank you to the following people for their input into this article:
Vanessa Padayachee (NICRO)
Adrian Strydom (Hope Prison Ministry)
About the author: Deborah Cuthbert is a relief librarian at the University of Cape Town. She has just completed an honours degree in criminal justice.