My Ruined Life: Putting the Pieces Back Together

IMG_1218j“I was always the new kid, always being hazed; always getting lost and never sure what class I was supposed to go to next. I came to hate school. At first I was shy. Later I would become filled with anger. I cut classes, I bunked school, and 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.”

At the age of 20, Piet Joubert 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 Piet 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.

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

Although teachers recognised in Piet 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.”

Piet 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 Piet picked up a gun and started to take what did not belong to “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. It’s 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 consisting of 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 Piet 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 [GO TO PROGRAMMES – My Path] programme 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 Ann and I have remained firm friends.”

The project: My Path [GO TO PROGRAMMES – My Path]

In 2001, Piet Joubert joined 18 other juvenile offenders, when Khulisa Social Services pioneered the first drug-free section in Johannesburg Maximum Security Juvenile Prison. In a ground- breaking social experiment, the group was coached and trained by Khulisa over a period of 9 months.

Then one day the group went around the prison putting up notices:

“Drug Rehabilitation Program available on Wednesday at 11 in the Kitchen”. This was not an easy thing to do. They realised that they might be seen a threat to those who profit from the drug trade, or regarded as “impimpi” – sell-outs who inform on others. Neither situation would earn them respect. And respect in prison keeps you alive.

Somehow they managed to avoid too much trouble and, on that first Wednesday, there were eight prisoners seated in the kitchen waiting for the people “from outside” to arrive. They got quite a surprise when it became clear that some of their fellow prisoners would be the facilitators. This was the first time in the history of South Africa’s prison service that programs were facilitated by inmates.

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 programs included HIV and AIDS awareness training for prisoners [GO TO DRUG SMART], 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 Piet. “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 programs have become the official in-prison HIV/AIDS Training Programme [GO TO DRUG SMART] 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 and the My Path [GO TO PROGRAMMES – My Patch] programme helped him to tell a different story.

“Today its 16 years since I was first locked up “says Piet. “I spent 8 years in hell and have been on parole for eight years. In essence, I have been in some sort of custody for half of my life. I still think of prison every few days. Not as much now as I used to though. I have not even thought of taking a drug for a decade. I have become respectable. Most people who know me have no idea I was in prison and I would have to do some pretty hard convincing to make them believe my story. When I got out of prison I started a business with R2000 and the clothing on my back. The lessons I learnt in prison helped me to stick with it during the difficult times and to grow it through the worst global recession my generation has seen. My business now does a turnover of R7 million a year with 20 employees.”