I was very scared about my first visit to a prison. I am glad that I got the opportunity to go with my classmate Zinhle, although she turned out to be more scared than I was!
I was quite surprised by the poor state of the visitors’ centre outside the prison. The waiting room is far too small for the number of visitors who come. People who can’t fit in there have to sit on some battered metal benches outside.
We had to wait around quite a lot and I was imagining the frustration of the family members who wait for over 2 hours only to speak to the inmate for 20 minutes, as we eventually did.
We went through 3 pat-downs and security checks. It’s quite intimidating even if you know that you have no contraband on you.
I was interested to learn that food from outside the prison is prohibited. Families can only bring in toiletries and I saw people carry Vaseline, soap, deodorant, toilet paper, toothpaste and even a pair of pink fluffy slippers (I overheard an officer saying that slippers are not allowed and I felt bad for the family member who had bought them). People can buy food for the prisoners at the very expensive tuckshop just outside the enclosure where the visit takes place. We bought a few not-so-fresh fruits for R18 and a tiny packet of chips for R11, for example. One very popular item at the tuckshop was atchaar, to add flavour to the prison food. People also bought cases of softdrinks and cigarettes.
It was really sad to see the inmates caged in an enclosure, waiting for their visitors. The place was very hot and crowded and we were all squashed on benches, visitors and prisoners facing each other and straining to hear above the din caused by all the other conversations around us.
I was very moved seeing all the families reconnecting. There was a father, a big burly man, who kept kissing his son’s head. Then there were all the lovers – that was a little embarrassing, but I suppose the prisoners are starved of affection.