Inside the walls of St Albans Correctional Centre in Port Elizabeth. PHOTO: Nosipiwo Manona
Inside the walls of St Albans Correctional Centre in Port Elizabeth. PHOTO: Nosipiwo Manona
Long serving offenders at St Albans during the three-day arts, sports and recreation festival which took place between October 23-25. Picture: Nosipiwo Manona/ANA
Long serving offenders at St Albans during the three-day arts, sports and recreation festival which took place between October 23-25. Picture: Nosipiwo Manona/ANA
St Albans Corrections Centre hosted a three-day art, sports, and recreation event this past week. Picture: Nosipiwo Manona/ANA
St Albans Corrections Centre hosted a three-day art, sports, and recreation event this past week. Picture: Nosipiwo Manona/ANA

Port Elizabeth - St Albans Correctional Centre in the Eastern Cape, widely regarded as one of the five most notorious prisons in South Africa, is home to 3 204 inmates. You don't end up in St Albans without having been regarded as a dangerous and violent offender.

The prison in Port Elizabeth is characterised by violent inmate protests; deep-rooted and incessant gang activity; overcrowding; and rampant allegations of warden corruption and inmate abuse. The prison made headlines this past year for deadly inmate-on-inmate violence and the running battles between inmates and wardens.

Yet, behind the heavy steel doors that imprison hardened men serving life and other long-term sentences, there are stories of hope, regret, survival, redemption, and rehabilitation.

I killed him to protect my sister

Rowallan Abrahams in St Albans sports team colours. Picture: Nosipiwo Manona/ANA

Rowallan Abrahams, 27, hails from the farmlands of Patensie, a small community west of Port Elizabeth. It is where he grew up, left school early and where one moment changed his life forever. 

Abrahams is serving a ten-year sentence for murder, after he stabbed a man to death. He entered the prison system in January 2016, and since his arrival joined a team of inmates who play dominoes, saying it keeps him engaged.

He has also joined the notorious 26s prison gang, the "money pushers", as he calls it. 

"In prison you must belong to a gang for survival and protection, outside a gang your safety is not guaranteed."

Abrahams has not qualified for other programmes of rehabilitation because he is still relatively new in the system.

"Before I came here, I was working full-time in Patensie. I left school in Grade 7 and started working because that is how life is where I come from," said Abrahams.

"One day my whole life changed. I killed a man and that incident has taken 10 years from my life. I was walking with my sister in our area where we live. A man just approached us and snatched my sister by force. I confronted him and we started arguing...when he failed to listen to me, I stabbed him with a knife and he later died.

"I regret what I did, however, I could not stand by and let my sister be harmed without protecting her."

Abrahams said his life changed in the moments following that incident, but he remains hopeful that he can change the course of his life from within the stinking, overcrowded cells of St Albans.

Prime years stolen by one mistake

Nceba Bavuse, 42, is awaiting release on parole from his sentence for rape. Picture: Nosipiwo Manona/ANA

Nceba Bavuse entered the prison system on September 25, 2002. Today, he is 42 and a father to two girls, aged 19 and 16. He is not married but at one point had a girlfriend he had been with for many years.

He was 25-years-old when he raped a woman.

"I took advantage of a 23-year-old woman who needed protection and assistance from me," Bavuse said. "The chance I took with her has removed me for 18 years in society."

Bavuse said he used to be a driver of long-distance buses travelling between Mthatha and Cape Town.

"This is how I met the woman I wronged. She was stranded on her way to visiting her boyfriend who lives in Cape Town. She could not get hold of him," he said. "I offered her a place to sleep and during that night ended up having sex with her. The following afternoon we went to find her boyfriend and a day later I was arrested on charges of rape."

He said he did not plead guilty because he had hoped to be acquitted because at that point he did not acknowledge that he had wronged the woman because she never showed it.

"We slept together and in the morning I left her at my place while I went to work. When I got back I escorted her to go and find her boyfriend and we found him and parted ways," said Bavuse. "With hindsight, I now know that rape is not when you have used violence and when your victim has screamed and cried and shouted ... as long as you have not been given a clear consent it is rape."

Looking back he says he had no reason for being tempted to sleep with the woman he raped because he was content in a relationship.

"I have since learned that rape demoralises and breaks women down when they have been made to sleep with men without full consent," he told the African News Agency (ANA). 

"They remain with the stigma and disgrace because every day they live with the shame and this sometimes grooms an animal that grows within their hearts, often resulting in behavioural changes that turn around their characters."

Bavuse said he is fortunate to not have been party to gang activity in all the years he has spent in jail. 

"My family values assisted me in staying away from joining gangs. When I first arrived here I noticed how gangs hurt other inmates and made the decision never to be part of the gangs.

"I was also fortunate because I was never approached to join a gang, instead I became party to a Prison Peace Task Team as a facilitator that encourages other inmates to make a turning point of their stay in jail."

Bavuse has since been transferred to the Mthatha Correctional Centre in preparation for his possible release on parole which will be decided by the parole board at their next meeting.

He has developed a great interest and passion for agriculture and animal production. 

"I have worked in the agricultural sector of the prison and have acquired skills that will enable me to survive on the outside."

He said he regrets the rape and added that he has traced her and asked for her forgiveness. She wrote back and said she had forgiven him.

"I now have teams of youth in the Mthatha area that I motivate to steer clear of crime and avoid going to prison at all cost," said Bavuse. 

"I see a bright future ahead, when I finally leave these orange clothes behind."

Ageing in prison

The hands that killed now making beautiful ceramic art pieces. Malibongwe Mthotywa, 57, a former history teacher serving time for murder. Picture: Nosipiwo Manona/ANA

Malibongwe Mthotywa is a teacher by profession but instead of standing in front of a classroom he is into his 17th year of incarceration for murder. He is now 57 years old.

Mthotywa was a history teacher at a secondary school in Mthatha before he was jailed for murder in 2001. Now, closer to retirement age, he has been given a date for his release on parole for a murder he committed when he was 41.

Its these wasted years which he referred to when he said: "We are fortunate, we learnt new skills. However, it is late now because if we had had these opportunities earlier in life, there would be better chances for us.

"Prison life is not nice, it changes a young person to become worse than they were when they came into the system," he said. 

He said the trick was to avoid associating with the wrong people such as members of prison gangs who are always on the lookout for new recruits. In the brutal world of South Africa's prison system, often times it comes down to luck.

A wistful Mthotywa said: "In the younger years, living carelessly seems like a nice option but when you are older it is not nice. We have families but we are stuck in jail.

"Even our children are directly affected by the effects of our actions, they are labelled as children of thugs and with every mistake they commit they are reminded that their fathers are jailbirds, therefore they won’t turn out differently."

Mthotywa has completed a course in ceramics as part of his skills acquisition requirements to qualify him for his parole release.

He has many regrets. 

"We waited too long to engage in skills and recreation, if we had started earlier we would be having so many other skills received while incarcerated here."

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) offered journalists the opportunity of spending three days within the confines of St Albans to witness the efforts at rehabilation and to prepare offenders for reintegration into society.

Department spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said: "Inmates classified as maximums and those serving long sentences often encounter challenges when due for parole consideration."

He said there is a general tendency among inmates who have been handed long sentences of failing to participate in rehabilitation programmes.

A three-day event which brought together inmates from five prisons across the Eastern Cape for a range of activities at St Albans was an attempt at fostering a culture of embracing rehabilitation as a corrective measure for offender behaviour and to help better prepare inmates for a progressive life in society.

The event showcased products created across different prison skills development programmes in agriculture, ceramics, leather works and clothing production.

Nxumalo said rehabilitation is more about the creation of an enabling culture where human rights is upheld and reconciliation, forgiveness and healing are facilitated.

"Through this programme the department seeks also to encourage inmates to discard negative values."

Regional Commissioner for DCS, Nkosinathi Breakfast, said one of the biggest challenges in the corrections system is convincing inmates to engage in skills acquisition early in their sentence.

"What we have witnessed here at St Albans is the rejuvenation of rehabilitation in action through sustainable development, recreation and arts development," said Breakfast.

"All I can tell you is that the light is even brighter at the end of the tunnel."

Some of the inmates are standing at the beginning of that dark tunnel. Others are seeing the bright light at the very end.