A Sacred Opportunity A woman of God takes on Cape Town’s prison gangs to bring release to the captives. b y Krist y n Komarnic k i interview b y S haron G ramb y - S ob u k we
In 1998, while working for the Centre for Conflict Resolution in her native Cape Town, Joanna Thomas walked into a prison for the first time and, unbeknownst to her then, took her first step into a new life. Plagued by overcrowding, Pollsmoor Prison, the largest maximum security prison in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, was at the time held in a virtual stranglehold by the country’s vicious gang culture. Ruled by the “numbers” gangs—the 26s, 27s, and 28s—the prison was rife with the same sadistic initiations, codes of conduct, and hierarchies that ruled gang life on the streets. Unable to protect his desperately outnumbered guards, the prison administrator had contacted the Centre for Conflict Resolution, hoping to reduce violence inside the prison and build better relationships among prisoners, staff, and management. Thomas met with the head of the prison’s admissions center and asked about his vision for the prison. His answer caught her off guard.“He said that he saw the prison as an institution of hope where people’s dignity is restored,” recalls Thomas. “But because of the high level of violence, the prison was very unstable, so he wanted to start with nonviolent conflict resolution training for both staff and inmates. He wanted to transform the culture of the prison.” She was intrigued. Having worked up to that point mainly with students in school settings, Thomas had seen how angry many young people were in the wake of apartheid and how vulnerable they were to gang involvement, which led to either prison or the cemetery. She, too, yearned for transformation. Joanna Thomas poses with inmate Roger, who shows off his Certificate in Adult Basic Education & Training from the University of South Africa. PRISM 2009
“My journey to prison ministry began that day,” she says. “I was assigned an officer to show me around the prison.We went through the first and second gates, and there I encountered a scene which remains deeply etched in my mind. I saw a sea of men standing in a lunch queue and thought, ‘This is all wrong. These men look no different from my brother, my friends, and the people in my church. But it’s noon on a Monday, and they are standing in a prison lunch line when they should be outside working, living productive lives.’” The wrongness that Thomas sensed went far beyond the particular crimes of the individual men. It was the whole system —the unchallenged, emasculating institutionalism of prison life—that struck her as evil. “From that moment I knew I had to come back to understand what was happening here and to enable these men to find their places in society,” continues Thomas. “I raced back to my office to meet with the executive director of the centre, which you just don’t do—that’s not the protocol, you make an appointment—but I was compelled to tell him about my meeting with the head of the prison and that I wanted to work there.” Thomas’ passion proved contagious, and she left her director’s office with a challenge to write a funding proposal, something else she had never done before that day. A few days later she handed her proposal to her boss, who told her it was one of the best funding proposals he had ever seen. “I knew then that this was a revelation from the Lord,” recalls Thomas. “The message that came to me was that I must enable the transformation of the prisoner. I knew that only God can transform, so I asked myself, ‘How do I make God visible in the prison? God is already there, but how do I make him evident to the men?’ I was working for a secular organization at the time, so I couldn’t speak openly about the Lord. I realized that the way to make God visible was to reflect the light and love of Jesus. So I accelerated my praying and searched the Bible for help. On the way to the prison I would drive along the M3 highway and look at the Constantia mountain range and pray, ‘Lord, make me as big as this mountain, and replace my heart of fear with a heart of compassion and love.’ ” Longing to bring the whole of her faith to bear on her relationships with the men, she asked the prisoner’s unit manager about the possibility of holding church services in the prison. She asked specifically to work among the men who were awaiting trial. “Nobody wants to work in that unit,” she explains. “It’s a very unstable environment, because the men are moving in and out of court, some being released, others being sentenced. But it leaves a big gap, because in our country you can await trial from two to five years.” Even if
Thomas celebrates with a group of men graduating from Hope Again Recovery Home’s six-month training program. a prisoner is eventually found “not guilty,” he will likely be forever influenced by the evil he encountered there. Administration approved her request, and with the help of a group of people recruited from her church, Thomas held her first outreach service at the admission center in February 1999. “It was held in the courtyard, and there were about a thousand men present, mostly gang members,” she recalls. “At first the mood was very hostile, but we started out with jazz and African music to get their attention and then led into gospel songs before sharing some testimonies and a short message from the Word. That gathering was a huge success. There was not one incident of conflict or violence. The courtyard was filled with men captivated by what was happening, with the music, stories, and message.” They were permitted to do a second service in October, which also went off well, although again the prison authorities were prepared for the worst, guards posted on the roof and the prison dogs standing ready. The following year, the unit manager asked Thomas to make the services a monthly event. The workshops that Thomas ran in the prison during this time included not just conflict resolution training but also work that helped the men identify their gifts and highlighted the different ways people process the world.The men listened to classical music; they shared their stories with each other; some of them wept in public for the first time since their childhoods. The results were dramatic:Violent incidents went from 297 reported incidents in 1997 to just two in 1998, drawing the attention of a BBC producer, who sent a team to document the work and the men involved.Two documentaries resulted—Killers Don’t Cry and Killers Come Home. Thomas cringes at the titles, but they did much to expose the fright-
ening gang-ruled social structure inside the South African prison system. In spite of multiple threats to her personal safety, Thomas painstakingly entered that world, learning the gang culture and seeking ways to connect with their leaders and build relationships with them. “As I left a cell after a training session one day,” she recounts, “a new prisoner named Roger handed me a newspaper clipping and said, ‘That’s me.’ I recognized the story immediately —just a few days before I had read about this brutal murder in which a young man was decapitated and his head put in a box and delivered to another gang member.When I had read the article at home, I’d said to myself,‘I don’t want to meet this person in the prison.’ It was so horrific. And here was this man standing in front of me.” Roger participated in her ongoing workshops, proving to be an excellent student. But he remained an active member of his gang behind bars, even threatening to arrange the murder of a former prisoner who had participated in the program. “One Sunday morning at the end of our worship service, an invitation was made to those who would like to take the Lord into their hearts, and I saw Roger get up in slow motion. My husband prayed with him, and so our relationship deepened. But he still kept one foot in the gang camp and one foot in the Lord’s camp.” In 2001 Thomas left Cape Town for a two-year stint in the US with the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, but she kept in touch with Roger and reconnected with him upon her return home. “By this time, he had really turned the corner and left the gang. He studied for his high school diploma and told me he wanted to go further with his studies, in order to become a peer facilitator in the prison, but there were no finances. I told him, ‘Just go ahead and register; the funds will come.’ So he did, and one day I received a check from the inmates I’d worked with at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. It was for $40, to be used for one of the prisoners or their families that I worked with. ‘Thank you, Lord!’ I said. ‘This money will go toward Roger’s fees.’” After Roger completed his Certificate in Adult Basic Education and Training, Thomas encouraged him to pursue his gift for mathematics. “He is currently earning his bachelor of science in mathematics through the University of South Africa. And his family is very supportive now, which wasn’t the case before, when some of them didn’t want to know him after that horrific crime.” Thomas hooked him up with the principal of Cornerstone Christian College in Cape Town, a professor of mathematics who helped him with some of the tougher math problems in his course work. “That’s just one of many stories,” says Thomas, “and I’m looking forward to the day when the first gang leader graduates with a BS degree in mathematics!”
Upon her return to South Africa, Thomas was eager to do full-time ministry in the prison, so she and her husband, Julian, founded the faith-based Centre for Hope and Transformation (CHAT). Through CHAT she continues to offer the same types of training in conflict resolution, restorative justice, and self-esteem building, but now she is free to offer spiritual counseling, discipleship, and prayer ministry as well. An essential part of CHAT’s work is their outreach to the inmates’ families. “Once we have a good relationship with a prisoner we will work at restoring relationships with key family members. Sometimes the families, once they hear about the work we’re doing with the prisoner, request training for themselves.” The worship services that began regularly in 2000 comprise the biggest and, in Thomas’ eyes, the most significant part of CHAT’s ministry. Each Sunday morning service is attended by between 300 and 400 men, mostly gang members. Tensions are released through singing and prayer. “The men close their eyes and raise their hands when they sing, and you will even see some crying.We pray for the men going to court, we listen to the men’s testimonies, and study God’s word. I believe this is where God is performing miracles.” To date, thousands of men awaiting trial have heard the Word of God, and hundreds of Bibles and pieces of Christian literature have been distributed. Men from Argentina, China, Germany, and many other African countries, imprisoned in Cape Town, have also heard the gospel preached. Last year, overcrowding at Pollsmoor’s admissions center reached such a dangerous level that all programs were suspended for security reasons—except CHAT’s Sunday services.“Facilities designed for 1,600 prisoners have been stretched to accommodate 5,000,” laments Thomas,“with 70 to 80 men squashed in the communal cells. But the church has been urged to continue, and we enjoy the full support of the staff in very challenging circumstances. Many souls have come to know the Lord, and our prayer is that they’ll grow in their faith and spread God’s Word as they leave the prison.” In partnership with another local ministry, Hope Again Recovery Home, Thomas runs six-month weekly training sessions—life skills classes and counseling—with those exiting prison (even the occasional guard) who are dealing with drug recovery issues. “As the men come for help with their drug addictions, they find hope, salvation in Jesus Christ, spiritual freedom, and healing,” says Thomas. Thomas targets gang leaders, knowing that if she can gain their trust and friendship, it will open the way for their followers as well.While this is no easy task, it would be much more difficult to do out on the streets,Thomas explains. “The prison presents a great opportunity, because it’s a contained environContinued on page 39.
out the lyric’s crux, a line Sam nonetheless sings with the lightest touch. “Looking for the lamb that’s hidden in the cross, the finder’s lost.” Let the “Is she
still a Christian?” crowd chew on that one while those who have loved too much, and now must go on alone, do so with Sam Phillips’ music up above their heads.
J.D. Buhl appears in the music issue of Geez Magazine (Fall 2008). He teaches junior high English and literature at Queen of All Saints School in Concord, Calif.
Lost and Found continued from page 11.
A Sacred Opportunity continued from page 22.
ness and transformative change. Befriending them and witnessing their change can foster change in you and in your community.” Sean Pica, Mark Wallace, Sean Johnson, Ricardo Sheppard, and thousands of other men and women have been powerfully transformed through their prison experience. Like Isaiah, they have been touched by the seraph’s live coal and experienced its life-giving power by hearing the healing words: “Your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out.” Not only have they changed for their own sake but they have also answered the divine call, with the power of conversion gleaming in their eyes: “Here we are, Lord. Send us.” n
ment. There’s an opportunity to build a relationship and influence. I take it slowly, step by step, and once there’s trust anything becomes possible. Someone asked one of the men why he trusted me, and his response was, ‘Well, she trusted me first.’” Her approach for building trust is remarkably simple. “I ask them how they are doing and inquire about their families. I just try to normalize the situation as much as possible. I ask them when their birthday is. I record their birthdays and then bring them a card—that usually blows their mind! If I hear there has been a death or illness in their family, I will bring a sympathy card. Just doing the normal things, things you and I on the outside take for granted, makes huge inroads in the prison. Keeping promises is also crucial.” What is it that draws Thomas back to the prison week after week, year after year? “The Bible makes it clear that prisoners are important to God,” she explains. “And there is a special reward for visiting with prisoners, as mentioned in Matthew 25. The way I interpret it is that God sees prison as a sacred place. I’m still learning to understand that, but I’ve come to see prison as a sacred place, too.When you get locked up you’re at the bottom of the barrel; there’s nowhere to run. So most inmates then turn their attention to God.That is how many of them cope with prison and actually find spiritual freedom they might not otherwise find on the streets. “God called me to this work,” she continues. “He placed the ministry in my heart. I see my own life being transformed daily, so the ministry just keeps drawing me deeper and deeper in. Having seen the evidence of God moving, doing miracles in the prison, I don’t want to do anything else. I worked for a big bank for many years and then for a secular nonprofit, but I left that to follow this calling, and it’s changed my life completely.” n
Learn more about Rehabilitation Through the Arts at RTA-arts.org. Dr. Hans B. Hallundbaek (firstname.lastname@example.org) has spent many years as a prison volunteer and educator. Besides writing on social and criminal justice issues, he serves as a Presbyterian minister and teaches legal aspects of corrections management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The Correct Way continued from page 19. not followers, so when they get out they can stay out. As in every community we live in, security should be paramount to deter lawlessness. On the outside, we expect our caretakers—police, firefighters, educators, etc.—to be qualified. Inside prison it should be no different. If the guards aren’t qualified, it defeats the purpose. Men and women should leave prison equipped to do something valuable — tailoring, computer literacy, electrical work, plumbing. Prisons should be in partnership with the community — if you have an A student coming out of a plumbing program, a local company should be waiting in the wings to hire him right away. He’s not used to life on the outside anymore, or how the world has changed. It’s intimidating without a lot of help from the community. n
Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe is department chair of Eastern University’s School of Leadership and Development (NGOLeader.org), which offers organizational leadership and economic/community development programs in South Africa in a hybrid (online/annual residency) format. Kristyn Komarnicki is editor of PRISM.