Drug Abuse and Imprisonment

/Drug Abuse and Imprisonment
Drug Abuse and Imprisonment 2018-06-26T10:10:50+00:00


“At the age of 20, John Smith stood before a group of youths and admitted, for the first time in public, that he had ruined his life. He wore an orange prison jump suit and leg-irons. The youths were visitors to a maximum security prison, where John was serving a 24-year sentence for multiple armed robberies. He told the students that by the time he was eligible for parole, they would be adults, perhaps married and successful, while he would have to start from scratch.”


{slider=Read the whole transformation story of John Smith}

At the age of 20, John Smith stood before a group of youths and admitted, for the first time in public, that he had ruined his life. He wore an orange prison jump suit and leg-irons. The youths were visitors to a maximum security prison, where John was serving a 24-year sentence for multiple armed robberies. He told the students that by the time he was eligible for parole, they would be adults, perhaps married and successful, while he would have to start from scratch.

John was born into an emotionally and socially dysfunctional, poor white family. For various reasons the family moved around a lot, which meant that John had few friends and nobody to whom he was really close.

I came to hate school. At first I was shy. Later I would become filled with anger. I cut classes, I bunked school, I hung out in games arcades, in public libraries and with older kids. I dreamed of just getting away from my family, getting away from the other kids at school, of being able to be an adult.”

Although teachers recognized in John an intellectually gifted child, he was in no frame of mind to make use of his gifts. When he was 14, he smoked his first joint and progressed rapidly to ecstasy, acid and heroin, but his was not a classic story of addiction. He used drugs in defiance of the world.

“Society was against drugs. I was against society. The enemy of my enemy is my friend right?”

Most of the guys he committed crimes and used drugs with died as a result of heroin. He knows that such drugs are not just incredibly addictive, but also change the way you think.

“I was 17 and so full of myself. My friends were drug dealers and criminals. I lived on the fringe of society in an inner city flat. My mother moved to the other side of the world and married an American. My father moved to the other side of Africa to find work in the Kenyan mines.”

John really wanted a fresh start. Not necessarily to be a better person – but just to get away.

“At that time, I didn’t even know what I wanted to get away from exactly. Now I know it was me running away from myself.”

It was only a matter of time before John picked up a gun and started to take what did not belong to him.

“I kidded myself that it was a way out for me. I would rob and pillage and take the money and run. I looked at the stats – the chances of getting caught were so slim. I never once thought about what would happen if I was caught. I guess I didn’t really care. I should have – jail really sucks.”

“Does jail really suck? I mean the news seems to imply that inmates are getting hot showers, lots of food and DStv. Well, it’s the dirtiest place you have ever seen. Multiplied by 100. Its just filthy. The level of overcrowding in South Africa’s prisons has resulted in absolute chaos. Thousands of unwashed bodies crammed into tiny spaces. The smell of rotting meat and vegetables  from the kitchen is everywhere. There is never a time when the entire sewerage system is working properly, so there is always the reek of shit from somewhere.  There are people everywhere. We took turns to sleep because there were too few beds and we fought for those beds all the time: for beds, for food, for safety and respect. The food is by no means haute cuisine. Two small meals a day. Runny porridge with weevils in the morning, pap or stamp with side of pork stew and some half rotten vegetable in the afternoon. No supper. Go to prison and hunger will become a way of life or you’ll learn to smuggle – to buy food on the black-market. Of course, as soon as you have ten rand, some other guy who has nothing will try to rob you of it because he also wants to buy food or drugs. If you go to prison you will find yourself alone, afraid, stressed, hungry, flea bitten and dirty. Pretty much every negative human experience rolled into one.”

In prison John continued on his path of self-destruction. He fought, he rebelled, he joined forces with a famous prison gang and he continued to smoke cannabis on a grand scale to fuel his particular brand of crazy. It took him 18 months before he realised his need for change.

“At first I was in denial. I believed I would escape, or die. I believed that I had no future within society. I was so stubborn. It seemed to me that even if I made changes, it would not be worth it, that I would still be disappointed.”

Eventually he was put in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. This helped him to find clarity and to face up to the reality of his situation. After months of painful introspection, he slowly began to realise that perhaps he’d been wrong, that there might be another way. So one night, he made a choice never to use drugs again. Today, he is fiercely proud of having been clean for 15 years.

“Making that choice and sticking to it are two different things. Addicts need the right kind of tools to fix themselves. Addiction itself is not what is treated. You must treat the condition that made addiction inevitable. So I got help.”

“A person, who would become one of my dearest friends, came to the prison one day specifically to see me. I was suspicious and confused. Who was she? What was she doing, asking to see me and why was I even bothering to see her? Lesley Ann van Selm would go on to play one of the most pivotal roles in my life. At first we only discussed ideas. I became interested in the intellectual understanding of my predicament and the predicament of other prisoners. Later there was writing – lots of it. I realised then that I was being coached. Just like top athletes and businessmen go for life coaching, so I was getting life coaching. All of it was centred around introspection and self analysis. Lesley Ann set me questions and expected me to answer them – not for her but for myself. To get to know myself. To walk the path of my life again and again as a participant, and as an observer, to understand myself and the flaws in my programming and to then rewrite my code.”

This intervention developed into the “My Path” program that would eventually be offered by Khulisa Social Services to tens of thousands of prisoners across South Africa.

“Over the eight years that I have been on the ‘outside’, Lesley Anne and I have remained firm friends.”

Khulisa has the vision eradicate the use of drugs and other addictions in South African prisons to reduce the recidivism rate during and after the time of incarceration. The idea is to ultimately create facilities in prison, which will become drug free sections over time and this is achieved by implementing the Drug Peer Counselling Programme.
In April 2002, in Johannesburg Juvenile Maximum Security Prison, Khulisa implemented its “Offender Drug Peer Counselling Programme”.  Funded by the American Embassy, a range of training components were undertaken between April and December 2002 when 18 youth inmates graduated as Drug Peer Counsellors. In February 2003, these drug peer educators were transferred into five different sections of Johannesburg Prison to introduce and establish a drug awareness and rehabilitation programme. By August 2003, the drug peer educators were working in seven sections of Medium C, running drug awareness programmes and undertaking counselling. By February 2004, 12 peer educators remained in the group as three had ‘dropped out’, and three had been transferred to other prisons.

During the first two years, the program reached more than 600 prisoners, who completed a holistic package of rehabilitation programs specially designed to complement each other and allow prisoners to find continued support. For example, prisoners who signed up for Drug Rehabilitation were included in drama therapy, sports coaching, adult basic education and creative writing.

“What we could offer was severely limited by resources and security issues (you cannot do a Rope Climbing Course in a maximum security prison!) but we did whatever we could and Khulisa backed us to win at every juncture. A syllabus of activities based on what appealed to individual inmates kept them supported and entertained. After all, the devil finds work for idle hands…”

Over two years the culture of gangster-ism, violence and drug abuse in the prison gradually faded and most prisoners were involved in some sort of education or self-improvement program. The initial group of 18 became a tightly knit brotherhood and many still remain in touch more than 10 years later.

Over time the programmes included HIV and AIDS awareness training for prisoners, as well as workshops for youths in schools and universities in Johannesburg. In the years from 2001 to 2006 the program hosted educational clinics for some 7000 at-risk-youths in schools in the Gauteng area.

The success of the students visiting a prison and hearing inmates’ stories resulted in many schools including the activity on their annual calendar. They brought anyone that the teachers regarded as a trouble maker or potential leader. This was no normal crime prevention program or someone trying to scare youngsters with graphic prison stories. In fact the real value was not so much in prisoners telling their stories, but in prisoners listening to the stories of students at risk.

“Those students were where I was five years before – at risk” says John. “If there had been someone like me, with my particular set of problems, who understood what I was going through and showed me another way, I think the outcome may have been different for me.”

The success of those 18 inmates in turning a prison around is no small matter. Today these programmes have become the official in-prison HIV/AIDS Training Programme and have been expanded throughout SADEC countries and have reached tens of thousands of offenders. The scope and impact has been felt nationally. It has become clear that there is a massive need for peer education based models for inmates.
South Africa has a high recidivism rate, due to the brutal prison conditions. Social workers and psychologists exist in a ratio of one to several hundred inmates. Corruption in the Department of Correctional Services is rife. There is insufficient manpower and financial resources to rehabilitate offenders. Custodial staff are purely trained to keep prisons secure and the inmates in. They do not have the training to help anyone.

Going to prison – and surviving whilst in prison – is only part of the challenge that every offender faces. The other part is surviving after being released and managing to stay out of jail.

For juvenile offenders who have served long sentences these challenges are particularly difficult. Many become adults while in prison. They learn violence as a solution. Extreme or insane behaviour becomes normal to them. When they are released they often face societal rejection, poverty and provocation. Reverting to violence sometimes seems the only available option. For at least one inmate, Khulisa Social Solutions and the My Path program helped him to tell a different story.

“The lessons I learnt in prison helped me to stick with it during the difficult times and this helps me to grow my business through the worst global recession my generation has seen. My business now does a turnover of R7 million a year with 20 employees.” John


Khulisa uses several tools to design interventions that change our communities:

The main aim of our work and any intervention offered by Khulisa is to bring a positive change in the community by designing specific and suitable interventions that include internationally-acclaimed best-practice programmes and engage all relevant stakeholders by building strong relationships.

Learn more about Khulisa’s unique approach to reinvent lives.

To eradicate the use of drugs and other addictions in South African prisons, Khulisa started with the Drug Peer Counselling Programme and has then realised that there is a need for programmes targeting HIV / AIDS. The next step was to include preventative elements in the programme targeting youth at risk to encourage them to shape a positive future rather than turning to violence and crime.


Impact of the DRUG Programme


Khulisa includes professional monitoring and evaluation in all projects to report back on the achievements and constantly improve all interventions


Treating addictions is an important step to reduce recidivism:

      • Research has show that alcohol and drug addictions significantly influence the criminal behavior of approximately 80 {fc125f1866f77698374c83416aa5c233ff7623ea2b2e07d8b59eeaffacb50c9f} of all inmates (Belenko & Peugh, 1998).
      • There is a close link between the consumption of alcohol and drugs and delinquent, especially violent behavior which leads to huge societal costs (Miller, Levy, Cohen & Cox, 2006)
      • Interventions that aim at lowering drug use amongst offenders, e.g. by drug testing and monitoring, a supervised recovery process and social support are an effective and efficient way to reduce recidivism of adult offender.
      • A study by Drake & Miller (2009) indicates a very satisfying return of investment. For every dollar that is invested in general drug treatment in prisons or similar programmes, between 8,5 $ and 12 $ can be saved (Drake & Miller, 2009).


The main impacts of the DRUG project offered by Khulisa include:

      • All participants showed a reduction in drug usage and a higher self-efficacy, believing that they can live a drug free life in prison as well as afterwards.
      • The drug peer counsellors state that they developed more self-confidence, self-motivation, the ability to connect with others and learned how to take responsibility for themselves and live within the prison context.
      • Strong group cohesion helps the drug peer counsellors to become positive role models that have the potential to reach out to the inmates and engage them in new forms of behaviour.
      • The participants benefitted significantly from the support groups as well as the counseling. They felt encouraged to start rehabilitation or stay drug free.
      • They developed an increased knowledge on the negative consequences of drugs as well as the role drugs played in their lives.



A huge “Thank You” to all people that were involved in this intervention to fight drug abuse and addiction!




Belenko S. & Peugh J. (1998). Fighting crime by treating substance abuse. Issues in Science and Technology, 15(1).

Elizabeth K. Drake , Steve Aos & Marna G. Miller (2009) Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Crime and Criminal Justice Costs: Implications in Washington State, Victims & Offenders, 4:2, 170-196, DOI: 10.1080/15564880802612615.

Miller, T. R., Levy, D. T., Cohen, M. A. & Cox, K., L., C. (2006). Costs of Alcohol and Drug-involved Crime. Prevention Science, 7(4), 333 – 342