Rehearsing rehabilitation

31 October 2017 | Story Tracey Saunders. Photos Belinda Bowling.
Wearing his life on his arms, an inmate contemplates his future.
Wearing his life on his arms, an inmate contemplates his future.

UCT postgraduates are working with a drama programme that aims to support prisoners through the crucial stages of their reintegration into society, which is the last year of their imprisonment and their first year of freedom.

Despite Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula’s assertion that “human rights are not human rights to a person who has chosen to be a criminal”, inmates of Correctional Services’ facilities do retain their basic human rights and are entitled to rehabilitation.

It is also in society’s best interests to support the rehabilitative measures employed in prisons, as once prisoners are released they become our neighbours and associates.

UCT graduates have been an integral part of an innovative and creative method of rehabilitating prisoners and creating a support mechanism for parolees. Their efforts culminated in a moving production, The Making of a Criminal: Part 2, which was staged at Artscape Theatre in September by inmates from Pollsmoor Correctional Centre.

A cast of prison inmates on stage may sound like an unlikely concept. Where did it all begin?

The Help! I am Free programme was established in 2013 as a partnership between the South African National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO), Artscape, Varde Theatre and Fredskorpset of Norway, the Department of Correctional Services and UCT.

“Although the programme is artistically orientated towards the production of a play and live performances at Artscape, it supports the reintegration of offenders through the building of skills, confidence and social work,” said Betzi Pierce from NICRO.

“The aim is to support inmates throughout the crucial stages of their reintegration, which is the last year of imprisonment and first year of freedom, to prevent reoffending, [and to] support responsible citizenship and taking positions as role models and mentors in their communities.”

The beginning of an artistic career? In The Long Walk, parolees have an opportunity to share their fears and dreams.

Chiminae Ball, a master’s student at UCT specialising in dramaturgy, directed the second performance in the programme, The Long Walk, which showcased the talent of parolees, some of whom had performed in 2016 in The Making of a Criminal: Part 1.

Citizens with convictions

Chiedza Chinhanu presented a paper titled “Citizens with Convictions: Prisoners, prison theatre and civic engagement” at the Prison Theatre Symposium that preceded the performances.

Chinhanu is an applied prison theatre practitioner and academic who did her master’s in applied drama and theatre studies at UCT. She will be furthering her studies in 2018 when she registers for her PhD.

She first became interested in drama therapy in prisons after a friend was imprisoned in Zimbabwe. She explained, “I saw [first-hand] the appalling treatment of prisoners. What was more shocking was the attitude of the public regarding the treatment of crime and criminals.

“The popular feeling is that life should be made so terrible for the convict so that when he comes out he will warn others to be good for fear of ruthless punishment. It made me question the idea behind imprisonment and how I could contribute to the transformation of my country’s prison system.”


“Through the process, the men recognised that they were not just learning how to act, but were presented with an opportunity to rescript their lives.”

She contacted Dr Veronica Baxter, associate professor in the Drama Department at UCT, who supervises a prison theatre project, and began her master’s journey. While working with inmates at Goodwood prison, she recognised the profound impact that the programme had on the participants.

“Through the process, the men recognised that they were not just learning how to act, but were presented with an opportunity to rescript their lives. Performing different characters created a dual consciousness between themselves and the characters, which opened up a space for reflection and evaluation.”

Rewriting their stories

Her experience was similar to that of Professor Alexandra Sutherland, a senior research associate at Rhodes University and the coordinator of creativity in activist education at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, who also spoke at the symposium.

Sutherland has facilitated a drama group at the Grahamstown Correctional Centre for 14 years and describes the benefits as follows: “Theatre in prisons offers an embodied collective practice where inmates, and in ideal scenarios DCS staff too, can story themselves and the world in many different ways.

From cells to the stage: Inmates tell their story during their performance of The Making of a Criminal: Part 2 at Artscape.

“It offers a playful, non-judgemental space whereby participants can become different characters and author different stories.

“This facilitates a multitude of affects and effects that I have witnessed: improved self-esteem, better verbal and non-verbal communication skills, ability to reflect on emotions and how to challenge emotions in different ways (some men talk about managing their anger better, for example), a stress relief and release, and Iearning to work as a group.

“Most importantly, I have observed that discovering that one is creative [and] can create something from nothing, which is what devising theatre involves, is a very vital human accomplishment and capacity.”

It is not only the inmates who are transformed by the process or the performance though.

Chinhanu said, “The men challenged me to think about a change in my life, in terms of my work in prisons. From my practice, I discovered how prison theatre has been constrained by geographical space, focusing only on the prisoner – his rehabilitation and correction – overlooking the role of civil society.

“Consequently, the change I now seek to make in my life as both a theatre practitioner and academic is the consideration of prison theatre as a publicly valuable service, not only to prisoners and the prison, but in the places and with the people sharing the problem of crime.”

Audience insights

As an audience member at the opening performance, the writer was moved by the authentic voices of the inmates and their sincere willingness and desire to return to society with something of value and where they are seen as humans first, not convicts.

Sutherland in “Disturbing Masculinity: Gender, performance and ‘violent’ men”, in the South African Theatre Journal, Volume 28, references Charles Taylor’s essay “The politics of recognition”, where he argues: “Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.”

One of the benefits of the performance is that inmates are recognised as fallible, as are we all, the difference only in the degree of fallibility and failing.

The parting image of a young male inmate weeping on his mother’s shoulders after she had watched the performance offered perhaps the most eloquent commentary on the process.

For as long as crime is an issue in South Africa, the rehabilitation of criminals and their reintegration into society will continue. Drama, the most empathetic of the art forms, can enable them to return to a world where reintegration is a step on the path towards a more inclusive and forgiving society.

The Making of A Criminal: Part 1 was staged in 2016 at Artscape Theatre. Some of the inmates participated in the 2017 programme for parolees.

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