Imprisoned by Circumstance

Derek Watts
By Derek Watts | Follow @DerekWatts
Derek Watts has been a journalist for nearly 30 years, presenting on South African television since 1985 as a sports anchor. Derek has been an anchor and presenter on Carte Blanche since the programme's inception in 1988. See full profile

There’s a fascination about prisons and life behind bars. Just ask M-Net’s Prison Break fans on a Monday night.

And even the reality peddlers have got into the act by getting seven innocent civilians to spend two months in an Indiana jail and filming their experiences for “60 Days In.”

I headed to Oudtshoorn with Carte Blanche Producer Mart-Marie Faure to meet the “Bad Girls” at the women’s prison in the centre of town. 

We got our ID documents checked and handed over our cellphones to the wardens.

It is actually a heritage building and, as jails go, rather attractive from the outside. But once that massive steel and wood door clangs shut behind you, you get that chilling realisation that this is certainly not a tourist attraction.

We got our ID documents checked and handed over our cellphones to the wardens. I felt relieved that we were just “incarcerated” for the day and not donning a brand new prison uniform.

Escorted by Correctional Services, we headed straight for the main cell where about 50 inmates dressed in dark blue tunics were perched on their bunk beds. The women, who seemed to range in age from late teens to pensioners, were told that Carte Blanche would be filming for the day and they had the option of heading off for other activities if they didn’t want to be seen on TV. Very few left!

PrisonWe started our story in true Masterchef style by heading for the kitchen where the evening meal, a fragrant chicken stew, was being prepared by the orange clad culinary crew. Breakfast was over, lunch consists mainly of six slices of bread and dinner gets collected in plastic trays around 2.30pm and taken to the cells. From 3pm it’s lock-down for the next 15 hours!

I wandered over to the preparation area where piles of carrots were being sliced and struck up a conversation with a friendly lady, Dawn, who was washing a few utensils.

PrisonWhy are you in prison? I stabbed my boyfriend. Is he alive? No he is dead.

 And that short interaction was a very sharp reminder of why we were covering this story. Dawn had apparently suffered years of abuse and reached a tipping point.

The next day when we spent time in the neighbouring townships, and spoke to the parents and grandparents of some of the younger inmates, a picture emerged of unemployment and poverty. Of a life where drugs and cheap alcohol abound and violence is often the order of the night.

PrisonBack in the main cell, Cursha told us how she fell pregnant at 16, left school and was eventually arrested for dealing drugs – mainly tik.

For some of these young women, prison is a safe haven from a sordid and extremely difficult existence on the outside.

Barely into her twenties, she is now a mother of three and is allowed to be with her baby in a separate house on the prison grounds.

Asencia was arrested for robbery when she was 20 and sentenced to three years in prison. After nine months she was released on parole but quickly reverted to her old ways.

Her grandmother, Ouma, said that Asencia was glad to see the officer when she was re-arrested and had been waiting a long time for the police to arrive. She wanted to go “home.”

PrisonAnd that is the tragic truth. For some of these young women, prison is a safe haven from a sordid and extremely difficult existence on the outside.

Social worker Natalia Petersen is totally committed to preparing the women at Oudtshoorn correctional facility for life beyond the high prison walls and meets with their families to pave the way forward.  But it is a tall order, sometimes higher than the prison walls.

The inspecting Judge for Correctional Services, Johann van der Westhuizen, sums it up. “They depend on a caretaker otherwise you can’t get parole.

“The caretaker might be a husband, or a boyfriend or a family member who actually exploits the opportunity to abuse you or to use you for further crime.

“So it’s quite possible that they say it’s better for me inside than to be out on parole.

“What that says about our society is, of course, a different question.”