Die Tronk

In a joint collaboration between the Department of Correctional Services and the Department of Labour, various skills training programmes were introduced in prison facilities throughout the Eastern Cape. The Department of Labour handpicked certain providers to assist in this programme, providers who would show compassion, sensitivity, possessed moral fibre and were unafraid to deal with the harshness of a prison environment. I was so thrilled to have been selected.

My brief was to provide sewing skills to the inmates of the Cradock Prison (Male and Female Section) and the North End Prison (Female Section only).

Here’s the thing – I don’t know how to sew, I am so uncoordinated when it comes to sewing and knitting, however, I have vision, energy and drive. I always employed highly skilled and very capable women to assist with the training part.

The Department of Correctional Services in Cradock provided a fully furnished flat for the sewing instructor to stay in for the duration of the training. Prior to the commencement of the training, equipment and furniture had to be transported from Port Elizabeth to Cradock – 12 sewing machines, two irons, two ironing boards, 13 tables and chairs as well as all the necessary equipment and material to efficiently run the programme. I would travel to Cradock on a weekly basis to oversee the training programme, provide whatever material and haberdashery was required for training purposes as well as liaise with the head of the prison and various senior warders.

In case you are wondering, life in a prison is not comfortable, neither is it easy, in fact it is very harsh. It certainly is punitive and the smell of boiled cabbage, Jeyes Fluid, BB tobacco and body odour is overwhelming to say the least.  After one hour, everyone who works there smells of all of the above-mentioned. It is not for the faint hearted.

Before I forget, rule no 1 – never ask an inmate why they are in prison. They will tell you in their own time and when they do, listening with empathy, showing respect and acting with dignity makes a huge difference in terms of maintaining discipline. Do not judge or pass judgement, that’s already been done. No, of course we didn’t get to meet or provide training to anyone who had committed a violent crime.

On completion of the training in Cradock we then moved all the equipment to the North End Prison. I was then able to participate fully by attending the training sessions on a daily basis. 

This meant that I was able to build relationships with people, to listen, show empathy, support, acceptance and guidance.

After spending a few days with our students, several things became obvious. Most of the women incarcerated were not necessarily bad people, they were there because they were illiterate, they had very little or poor education, some had very tragic home circumstances, like an incestuous relationship with a father, or had experienced extreme domestic violence almost on a daily basis. They stole because they desperately needed to feed their children. No they weren’t bad, they just did bad things and they never had a chance.

One particular day, I asked the sewing instructor if I could spend the morning with students. I gave her the option of attending the session or sitting it out; she opted to stay and participate in the exercise.

I gave each one a couple of sheets of A4 paper. I requested that they write a letter to themselves, a love letter if you like, about their lives, the highs, the lows, the disappointments…every single thing. I assured them that no one was going to read those letters and they would not be required to share the content. They wrote and wrote, some sobbed loudly, and others just let the tears flow. When they were done, I took a black refuse bag, walked from desk to desk requesting them to shred the pages and throw them into the bag. I said that should anyone require the services of the psychologist or social worker, we would arrange counselling sessions.

Something so amazing happened; they started making eye contact, sat up straight and started smiling.

We spent the whole morning just talking, reaching out, and participating in a huge group hug, a few people prayed out loud, for themselves and each other.  We laughed, we cried and then we danced and sang a little bit.

The training instructor enjoyed this so much, that she applied to work for the Department of Correctional Services and is currently still in their employ.

After discussion with the group, I introduced a basic bookkeeping progamme, life skills and very basic literacy. In my discussions with the Department of Labour I mentioned that we cannot train folk to sew if we don’t teach them how to create a little business for themselves, therefore basic bookkeeping was essential.

Two weeks later, there was a very loud knock on the door to the training room.  I opened the door to be confronted by the chief warder who, in a very loud voice, demanded to know what was going on in the training room. I closed the door so as not to alarm the participants or the instructor; I explained that we were teaching people to sew. Without a smile, not even a flicker of a smile, he demanded to know: “What else? What are you teaching them?”. With my heart pounding in my chest, I thought I was going to be fired. I explained that over and above the sewing skills we had introduced (at no extra cost to the Department) life skills, basic book keeping and basic literacy. He looked at me long and hard and then the biggest smile appeared and he said: “ Carry on, just carry on with this.” 

He then went on to explain that the warders had reported a decrease in bad behaviour and an increase in cleanliness, both personal and the cells, positive attitudes and improved discipline. Apparently all the students (all twelve of them) were spreading the word at night time. As they were in different cells, it was easy for them to teach the others everything they had learned.

What a relief I thought, trying to remain cool and collected.

In the basic bookkeeping course we discussed how to identify business opportunities in their neighbourhood; Income and expenditure; how to calculate prices including costs like transport, rent and so forth.

I got permission for George to spend a morning with us, explaining profit and loss and the importance of paying all your debts first before spending money on yourself.

A very interesting situation developed, a prisoner attempted to escape from St Albans Prison. Because of this situation the chief warder of North End was to be transferred to St Albans.

I was approached and asked if I would consider assisting him at St Albans, mainly working with some of the prison gangs. He assured me that I would be heavily guarded at all times, however, he was confident that in time I would be able to work with one or two guards present. I was so keen. He tried everything – he begged and pleaded, we wrote to the department. Nothing worked. I received a letter thanking me for being a model citizen. End of story.

We did however get to organise a graduation ceremony tea for the 12 students. One of the conference rooms on the premises of the prison campus was made available to us, some of the warders decorated it beautifully, tea, coffee and with light snacks on offer for our invited guests. For one hour the students were allowed to wear the outfits they had made; which consisted of a jacket, tailored long pants, tailored skirt, a dress and a blouse. Their cell mates did their make-up and hair. Everyone in the women’s section, wardens and inmates cheered on their friends, loads of whistles and banging of tin cups, as they were escorted to the graduation ceremony.

The Chief Prison Warder mentioned to George that the effect of the training programme and love and empathy received from us played a huge role in improving discipline, cleanliness, care and concern for the other – it had huge impact on staff and inmates alike. Such an impact that the inmates asked him if they could invite me over for a pyjama party…

And just like that my time and contract came to an end.

Rule no 2, once you walk out through those very large heavy doors, keep on walking, do not look back, further contact with the inmates is discouraged.

With tears streaming down my cheeks I walked away from one of the most profound and impactful work experiences of my life.

Would I do it again? Yes, Yes, Yes.  In a heartbeat.

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  • Anne Bizinos

    What an amazing experience, Gail. You sure went over and above what expected of you. Would love to know how many of those ladies made a living/life once they were released from die Tronk.
    Does the Correctionsl Services continue to give the inmates skills training of this calibre?

    • Gail Charalambous

      Oh Anne, it was indeed an amazing experience, yes I would love to know what happened to those women.

  • Michelle M

    My Gosh Gail – your love and compassion knows no bounds. How fortunately those ladies were to spend time with you and to learn from you.

    • Gail Charalambous

      I was indeed so fortunate to spend time with them. Thank you for your lovely insight.

  • You, my darling Gail, are the little pebble in the pond.
    Who can say how big, how far and to whom these ripples extended to?
    I know your Baba would have been proud of you.
    Sending you lots of love….

    • Gail Charalambous

      My dearest friend, thank you for your very meaningful comment. I was always assured of my Baba’s love, a very special man indeed.

  • Larna Anderson

    Gail, Real life is so much larger than fiction and this is real. How brave and selfless. Thank you for sharing your experience… humbling and inspiring xxx

  • Diane Connell

    Goodness, now that is something you can be very proud of doing. Huge respect to you. Amazing!

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thanks Diane, I am indeed and it will forever be etched in my heart as a very special moment in my life.

  • Ronwynne Fourie

    Gail a remarkable story. St John had a similar opportunity at both prisons we taught Home Base Care and First Aid. A life changing experience as you say. Wish the Dept would bring those iniciatives back.

    • Gail Charalambous

      Gosh Ronwynne, I sincerely wish they would re-introduce all those wonderful training programmes.

  • Sanette Cavallari

    Respect. The profoundness of your walks in and through the lives of others, and George being always present in some or other aspect, reaffirms the beauty of your relationship.

    • Gail Charalambous

      Dearest Sanette, thank you so much my lovely friend.

  • Terence

    Wow Gail. Many hidden talents.
    Would you consider a similar project , but with young unemployed people?

    • Gail Charalambous

      Yes indeed, let’s meet up for a chat and coffee.

  • Ditto to that Michelle

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you George. This stuff happens because of your love and support.

  • Michelle Brown

    Dear Gail,
    Wow… Just read your account of the training initiatives you undertook and implemented, in St Albans and North Ends Prisons… and… I commend you for that!!!!!!

    Michelle Brown