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Prison journalism: Life Behind Bars: Survival, Respect, and Redemption

David van Nek was incarcerated in Pollsmoor Correctional Centre from 2013 until 2015 and participated in the restorative justice programme.


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In the confined walls of a prison, life takes on a rhythm and routine all its own. It’s a world where every action has consequences, where alliances are forged, and where survival often depends on the choices one makes. This is a glimpse into my world. From the joy of reuniting with a released friend to the harsh realities of daily existence, from aiding a newcomer to learning the unspoken rules of the gangs, this story offers a raw and unfiltered look at my life behind bars. 

Reunion, Daily Life, and Aiding a Newcomer

M. was released from jail upon completing his sentence and came to visit us. Consequently, I was left with two other individuals: one was a 26’s, and the other was a ‘frans,’ a non-gang member. During the night, we had three cell phones in the room, and we divided them so that each person could make a call for 15 minutes. Some inmates were talking to family members, while others sought forgiveness, promising to change upon release. Some fulfilled this promise, while others did not. Every day brought sights that could break one’s heart.

One morning, my close friend and I were waiting in the hall to fetch food. The 27’s went to an office, and I stood in the corner. Suddenly, one of them began to stab an officer. Five minutes later, we were locked up again without receiving our breakfast. However, the cleaning boys knew we hadn’t eaten, and there were one or two kind ladies who ensured we were paid and fed.

I met a man from Mitchell’s Plane who was new to jail life and had been selling drugs. I helped him contact his family and supplied him with necessities. His mother, a nurse in England, had just returned home to discover he was in jail. With my assistance, he was eventually approved for parole and began visiting me in prison.

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Life Among the Gangs

Back in prison, I was on my own, working in the office block with two others. One was caught breaking into a captain’s office due to pressure from the 26’s. We were allowed to travel around the prison, even outside, where many bad individuals resided. The 26’s were focused on money, while their brothers, the 27’s, were involved in violence, punishing each other with soap-filled socks.

Learning Respect and Discipline

Despite the pain and hardship, respect and discipline were learned. Some arrived wild but were taught proper behaviour within a week or two. Some nights were filled with stress and fights, but after 10 minutes, enemies would shake hands, for this was a man’s world.

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Survival and Lessons Learned

After six months, the office block provided an extra R10.20, making the pay R38.20 per month. At the prison shop, we were asked to clean, and we would steal tobacco, coffee, and other goods. Everyone feared for themselves, and if caught by the wardens, the punishment was severe. This is a glimpse into a world where strength is paramount, and respect is hard-earned. It’s a place where lessons are learned the hard way, and survival is a daily battle.

Should you wish to assist in the rehabilitation of former inmates and help put money into the pockets of those who have struggled to earn a living during and after incarceration, click HERE 

DISCLAIMER: Submission published as received

RESTORE is an NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa, providing inmates at Pollsmoor Prison with restorative justice opportunities.

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