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Cape Town - At the gates of Pollsmoor Prison is a sign that reads: “Welcome to Pollsmoor - A place for new beginnings”. And it has been exactly that for Antonichia Ehlers, a reformed drug addict seeking a new beginning on her road to recovery.
Ehlers, who has been taking various types of drugs for half her life, has been clean for more than two years and is set to be released next year.
On Tuesday, the 28-year-old sat calmly as she told her story in a meeting room at the prison’s Females Centre of Excellence.
A “zombie tattoo” of tribal patterns and her name are visible on her left arm - a design she says she made herself because it was “cool” when she served a sentence for murder as a juvenile.
Ehlers first came to Pollsmoor when she was 18. She was convicted of murder and served a six-year sentence.
At the time she was already enslaved to drug addiction.
Dagga, mandrax and tik - Ehlers had done it all, using all types of drugs at the same time.
“I was heavy on drugs. I started doing drugs from when I was 13,” she said.
Ehlers said the drugs had made her aggressive during her teenage years, while she lived with her mother in George.
She first became hooked because drugs were available and she “liked the feeling” and the “satisfaction” she got from the drugs.
She used money that her mother had given her and any cash she could source from home.
She sold things and stole money to buy drugs. Ehlers also sold drugs for a while.
She continued using drugs when she was pregnant and today she sees the consequences her actions have had on her 12-year-old son, saying “he is a little slow at school”.
After she was incarcerated the first time she stayed with her aunt in Mitchells Plain for two years. There, she was ridiculed for being a “tronk voël” ( a jail bird), which set her off on a another drug binge.
“My uncle triggered me. He said you’re a tronk voël… that triggered me and I went heavy on drugs. I lost it outside,” she said.
Her mother wanted her to go to rehab but she told her mother that she wanted to go back to prison where someone “would listen” to her.
“My mother thought I was making a joke when I wanted to go back to prison.”
Ehlers was again incarcerated and has spent the last two and half years in prison serving a seven-year sentence for three assault cases.
She has also not seen her son in two years.
Ehlers embraced the rehab programme and initially had to detox, taking tablets to avoid cramps.
There she also met a spiritual counsellor, sister Jenny Clayton, who changed her life.
“This time sister Jenny got through to me… She’s like a mother to me. I can talk anything to her, she doesn’t judge me.”
Ehlers was dealt another blow when her friend, who was addicted to tik and raped, was killed in prison earlier this year.
“When I got the message that she was killed, I realised that I don’t want to live like that,” she said.
She was never forced to go to counselling.
Since Ehler has been in prison she has not been on any drugs. Today she has her confidence back.
“I can speak to people. I’m not so aggressive anymore… I’m a totally different person.”
Ehlers is currently doing a chef’s course and has “plans to take it further”. During the day she busies herself with her courses, metal work or welding and her education.
“I run up and down in prison I do my course, I do positive stuff to keep me busy.”
Her mother comes to visit once in while. “She knows everything I’m busy with, the positive stuff. I have a relationship with her now I didn’t have before.”
When asked whether she thought she would relapse, she said: “I don’t want to go back to that life. I sit in my room and see how I was… I don’t want to go back, otherwise I’m going to die…I should have been dead already.”
When her rehabilitation in prison is over she will go to an Observatory home called Beautiful Essence where ex-offenders are housed and supported.
“They will walk the road with me,” she said.
Ehler was placed in the Restorative Justice programme along with about 30 other women offenders according to the head of the centre, Lindiwe Jonas.
She said they have had many success stories as a result of the programme which is why they opened the Beautiful Essence centre for ex-offenders.
“Others find employment and others come back to give their testimonies,” she said.
Ehlers said drugs like dagga or tik were easily available in prison, but that it was up to the individual whether or not they choose to use the drugs.
“People get stuff like that in prison. It’s free…The wardens are against that stuff they try to get it out of prison, but it’s hard.”
Eventually she wants to start her own business.
Today, Ehlers is not afraid to tell her story hoping that someone else can learn from her experiences.
The most difficult part of her incarceration has been missing her family.
However, she prefers serving her time in Pollsmoor because of the rehabilitation courses on offer.
She does not want to go back to George when she is released.
“I don’t want to go back. I want to start a new life,” she said.
Her advice to people was to stay away from drugs: “It can change your whole life, I lost my whole life because of drugs.”