Hope Behind Bars

On a hot day just outside Cape Town, a group of young men kick around a football. Bouncing it off their knees and heading it up to the sky first, they then complete one drill after another under the blazing sun: one touch, two touch, pass to the next. Repeat. On the sidelines, more teenagers warm up, jogging back and forth. Jumping, clapping and shouting in unison, they form a rhythm and a soundtrack for those on the pitch. The boys’ smart, blue uniforms are new and clean. Their shirts are tucked in, their boots are laced up and shiny-red, contrasting happily with the grass on which they step. Under a shell of blue sky, a wall of mountain ranges provides a postcard-like background for these boys as they continue to pass the ball, chatting in languages spoken in their respective townships – Xhosa, Afrikaans, or English – excitedly but earnestly about their upcoming match.

As I stand on the sidelines, speaking to Mark, one of the coaches, and feeling the warmth of Southern hemisphere sun on my back, I find it difficult to comprehend. The young man leading the warm-up is guilty of rape. The person he passes to has been convicted of a double-murder and burglary. Their team-mates, all aged from 17 to 23, have similar pasts. This pitch is in Drakenstein Prison, about 45 minutes from Cape Town, and one of the largest and most over-crowded jails in South Africa.

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The power of sport – and what it can do for society – is no mystery. Anyone who watched the Olympics and brushed a tear from their eye when Mo Farah crossed the finish line, or remembers Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela holding up the Rugby World Cup together in front of a united Rainbow Nation just one year after apartheid ended, can vouch for that. (Mandela was freed from Drakenstein – he had been transferred there from Robben Island.)

Sport’s ability to create positive behaviour change – to shift the thinking of someone who has known nothing but poverty, crime and negative influences since birth – is something not so widely recognised.

The boys playing at Drakenstein are involved in a comprehensive programme called Hope Academy, which recruits young men from prisons all over the country. Football is only one component – the hook, the draw. After any boy succeeds in trials, he must complete an interview and convince the coaches that he’s committed to changing his life; that he wants a positive future, and to become a positive role-model once released.

If accepted by Hope Academy, the boy is transferred to a special department at Drakenstein where, three days a week, the young men play football. On Saturdays, they compete in league matches. But before training gets underway, there are life-skills assignments on topics designed to build their knowledge and confidence, and encourage them to think about the rights and duties of a responsible citizen.

Over the last few years, I’ve become close to the people who run Hope Academy through my work at Beyond Sport, a global organization, based in London, which supports and funds projects that use sport as a tool to address social problems. On the day I visited Drakenstein, the group’s discussion topic for the week was ‘aspiration’. The aspiration to leave prison – and never come back; to contribute positively to the families they had let down; to resist slipping back to their local gang when released; to play well in their upcoming match; to not disappoint their teammates. Their aspirations for were intertwined with their footballing objectives.

In other discussion groups I’ve sat in on at Hope Academy, topics such as ‘fatherhood’ and ‘faith’ have been on the agenda.

At Hope Academy Drakenstein’s sister project in Soweto (which is a prevention programme aimed at very young people at risk), the focus, memorably, was ‘good touch, bad touch’. The boys and girls, who play on the same team, were asked to identify what was acceptable in terms of touching on and off the pitch. One boy said bad touch was kicking an opposing player in the shin, while another said it was kissing a girl who did not want to be kissed. A girl no older than nine said that good touch was hugging her mother when she returned from the job that kept her away during the week. The boy next to her said with a massive grin that good touch was high-fiving a teammate. Basic observations, perhaps; but they show a developing social understanding through the ways that they link football and life.  

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The footballers at Hope Academy Drakenstein share a cell of their own – 20 of them in total per year – completely segregated from other young inmates. In other parts of the prison, there can be up to 35 in one cell; in even more crowded prisons, like Pollsmoor, numbers can reach 80. The Hope Academy cell is pristine, with neat posters of Premier League footballers and certificates of finishing school assignments gracing the walls next to metal-framed beds made with tight hospital corners.

Before practice started, the warden let me walk around the small courtyard unprotected, and the boys showed me around their tidy, stark surroundings, while telling me their stories.

A quiet and humble player, B, reflected on his past with regret. At 16, he raped a girl in his township and was convicted to seven years in prison. Now 22, he was just a few months from release, when he would once again face a harsh reality that affects so many of these young men. Over the past six years, he had gone through a restorative justice course with a service that Hope Academy partners with at the prison, which connects the victim to the perpetrator, and in the course of which he asks for forgiveness. This experience, coupled with the support and discipline instilled in him through football practice, had utterly changed him. A rapist and gang member was not what I saw or heard. In perfect but hesitant English he spoke of remorse, regret, but most of all about hope and ambition for the future – to be a leader for his community, to show younger children in poverty-stricken areas the life-ruining circumstances of choosing the wrong path.

When they are not training, these young men attend closely monitored education courses. No tattoos, no drugs, no violence, no stepping out of line. If they do, they don’t play football, and, if they show further neglect to the rules, they are placed back in the normal prison cells. Under this zero-tolerance policy, there hasn’t been a single incident at Hope Academy since it was launched in 2008.

Just across the hall, in the cells on the other side of a thick iron door, incidents occur on a daily basis: stabbing, drug-smuggling, rape. 

In this part of the prison, a quiet mayhem lurks. While the warden allows me to pass through the hallways, he won’t let me step foot into the cells. Most of the guards won’t even venture in themselves unless absolutely necessary. It is too dangerous – overcrowding, understaffing and dark corners create an environment impossible to regulate. This area is controlled by three gangs – each with their own specialty: drugs, rape, or violence – tools used in different ways by the prisoners to attain power. This power is wielded through initiation rituals, violent crimes carried out to demonstrate commitment and allegiance to the gang itself. This could mean murdering a rival gang member or raping a fellow inmate. Once the act of loyalty is completed, the gang becomes a sort of angry family, providing them protection, with leverage once they’re released, giving them a sense of camaraderie in a very dark place.

W, more talkative than his teammate B, came over to Hope Academy from the other side, where he was imprisoned for murder and burglary aged just 12. The crime was committed as retaliation against another gang, and he talked about his fear of being released. The rival gang, he said, is waiting for him and will kill him as soon as he returns. He pulled off his jersey to show me his tattoos – the most prominent was of his gang on the other side of Drakenstein. Hope Academy, however, had transformed him. He spoke of his family, and wanting to support them; he spoke of getting a job in another township, far away from the gang he had ruined his life to be part of. He had a determined steadfast desire to provide a new kind of companionship and security – one that mirrored how he related to his teammates.

Of course, while listening to these stories that left me afraid, moved and inspired, I was also conflicted, as I often am when working with Hope Academy. A little seed of doubt and concern was planted as W showed me his other tattoos and knife scars, evidence of the crimes he committed, and the hurt he caused. 

There’s something about Hope Academy Drakenstein that makes me think deeper, longer, more analytically about social care than many of the other projects Beyond Sport advises and supports. Perhaps it’s because it teeters on the brink of acceptability. This is not a programme that focuses on an objectively suffering group – as with other projects, such as those which concentrate on malaria sufferers or Iraqi refugee girls in Jordan.

These young men have done terrible things, and have had a negative impact on their communities. So why focus resources on them? And why sport?

In South Africa, 85% of juvenile men released from prison re-offend. For Hope Academy, that drops to 15%. The average young man under 18 who commits murder, rape, burglary or some other violent act, will be convicted for 5 to 12 years, sometimes one will be sentenced to something much longer, like 40 years, but for the most part, if a 12 or 13 years commits a serious crime, they will be out of prison and living amongst their community again in under a decade.

Faced with these statistics, my mind clears. At a young age, these men have found role models and protection in gangs. The circumstances in prisons like Drakenstein only encourage further violence. The focus must be on creating opportunities that catalyze behavioural change while they are serving out their sentence, so that when, in their twenties, they are re-admitted into society they can serve as positive role models for the next generation. Hope Academy is there to break a nightmarish cycle. As for sport being the catalyst – it is an alternative to gang culture, to its structures of leadership, security, brotherhood, loyalty. Hope Academy harnesses those desires, peeling them away from violent models, replacing fellow gang members with teammates.

It’s been just over a year since I last visited Drakenstein, but speaking recently with Mark, the lead coach and programme director for Hope Academy, I found out that B had been released two weeks ago, and Hope Academy had arranged an interview for him at an electric company. ‘I haven’t told him yet, but he got the job,’ Mark said, with fatherly pride.

In this context, it’s clear that sport – football specifically – is the key factor. It proves that sport can go further than thrilling an audience in the Velodrome or inspiring people to sing their national anthem vociferously. It’s that missing element – not only discipline, but camaraderie, a trusted group of people that will support and protect – which can shift the behaviour and action of a disadvantaged generation, and pass that message onto the next.

Mark’s favourite success story is about another player, S, who had been a ’28′ gang member (the group that forges power in the prisons primarily through sexual violence) and was locked up in a single cell for stabbing two prisoners. Once out of solitary, he was allowed to trial for the academy and succeeded. Over the years, the coaches built a relationship with him that transformed his life and conscience. He is now living in a half-way home and studying business and marketing at university. He is a motivational speaker at churches, community centres and schools across Cape Town on the destructive effect of gangsterism.

‘It’s pretty simple,’ says Mark, as we rehash the boys’ stories and talk about where they are now and how far they have come (I feel I’ve known them for a long time and have only met them once or twice, so Mark must feel he has 20 new sons every year.) ‘Football is just the catalyst … It’s not just the playing, it’s the whole philosophy – we offer the young men an excellent coaching programme; it’s top-notch, and when the boys see that, they just want to be a part of it.

‘Even though the gangs say “as soon as you walk out the door, you’re dead” – in a way they are joining another gang – a positive gang.’