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The value of prison in South Africa Performing the prison experience beyond the prison

Julia Hornberjjer

in collaboration with Sasha Gear, Kathleen Rawlings, and Musa Risimati


At the beginning of2018, Kathy Rawlings (who is also die author of a chapter in this book), then a master’s degree student, came to me telling me about a criminal justice nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that had established itself in Johannesburg and was concerned with ex-prisoners. Nothing about it was conventional: it wasn’t being run in the conventional way, namely by some liberal folks concerned with the fate of ex-prisoners; nor was it a public works programme trying to reintegrate ex-offenders. Instead, it had been founded and was being run by ex-prisoners themselves, who were creating employment for themselves. It wasn’t exactly clear what the mission of the NGO was, but the founders must have gathered that their prison experience was enough fertile ground to start their own organisation.

Learning of this NGO struck a chord for me, reverberating strongly with some of the insights I had gathered in the course of The Economy of Punishment and Prison in Africa (ECOPPAF) project. These had helped me see how life for exprisoners outside of prison could be made productive by keeping alive their experience of having been in prison. In fact, it seemed that for many of them there wasn’t much point of overcoming the experience of incarceration and moving on, because social and economic conditions were bleak and opportunities few. After serving their time, most would simply be taken back into the wretchedness that compelled them to commit crimes in the first place. The only way they could forge a new path was to put their identity of being ex-prisoners to work, whether by providing witness accounts of the horrors of prison life to prison advocacy NGOs, giving motivational speeches to deter others from committing crimes, or even by earning respect from fellow' gang members and intimidating people with tales of prison prow'ess. It is this value of being an ex-prisoner that is the subject of this chapter.

But before I start laying out and developing the argument of this chapter, I have to explain how this chapter came about. This is a rather peculiar chapter for me to write, as it is not based on my own ethnographic material. Instead, I am scavenging the ethnographic leftovers of people wiiose research I have been following closely, be it in the role of a colleague or supervisor. Thus, I want to first thank the three researchers - Sasha Gear (SG), Kathy Rawlings (KR), and Musa Risimati (MR) - who allowed me to use their ‘ethnographic crumbs’ in order to develop an argument rather tangential to theirs. SG and KR’s own work is well presented here in this book while MR’s MA thesis can be found in the library of the Wits University: SG writes on prison rule by prisoners in the various spaces that precede the actual prison, KR writes on the complicity between criminal justice institutions and ex-prisoners in misrecognising the structural factors that lead to crime. And MR writes about forms of popular justice with regard to bail hearings. They thus have seemingly quite distinct foci. Yet, having listened to them throughout this project, during supervision meetings in the case of KR and MR, and in project meetings where all of them presented their research as it evolved, I could not help noticing how their research process and the accounts of their material spoke to each other. This motivated me, in May 2018, to invite them to participate in a recorded group discussion/interview in which they each shared their experience of the research process and then discussed their findings in relationship to my questions about the value of prisons outside the prison. In that conversation, I was struck further by how their accounts revealed, accumulatively, how the prison extends beyond the actual space and time of incarceration.

And indeed, many authors have recently highlighted the prison-society continuum. Some stress the permeability of prison walls spatially, economically, and socially (Cunha 2014, Morelle 2015). The most critical argument in this regard has been provided by Loi'c Wacquant (2000, p. 378), who argues that the prison and the ghetto have the same function, namely ‘enclosing a stigmatized population so as to neutralize the material and/or symbolic threat that it poses for a broader society’. As such, they constrain people in the same way and produce the same kind of subcultures. In other words, they are extensions of each other if not actually the same institution. Wacquant (2000, p. 384) calls this a ‘carceral continuum’ that ‘entraps ... younger black men (and increasingly women) who circulate in closed circuit between its two poles [prison and the ghetto] in a self-perpetuating cycle of social and legal marginality with devastating personal and social consequences’. My argument goes in the same direction and builds on his grasp of the kind of abyss and impossibility that post-prison life presents for those released from prison (and those imagining their release). I further emphasise and expand on the relentlessness of this abyss by showing that, perversely, one way of not falling into the abyss is to stay in prison. While this might entail a new offense and re-incarceration, I am more interested in how people stay in prison in a more imaginary and performative way, keeping the prison experience alive through discursive and emotional re-enactment, be it in the form of witness accounts, motivational speaking, or fearsome rumours and myths about one’s prison time. These discursive acts are a meaningful and respectable activity in the time after being released from prison.

Studying the prison from beyond the prison

These three discursive and affective forms - witnessing, motivating, and intimidating - of keeping the prison experience alive can be found in the ethnographic crumbs of research on prisons in Africa by SG, KR, and MR. Interestingly, and methodologically speaking, all three of them did йог study the prison from within. While this was at first a pragmatic decision for them as researchers, it became for me a conceptual premise and research framework: only by studying the prison from outside and after imprisonment can the researcher see how it carries value beyond its spatial and temporal confines.

SG’s decision to study the prison in South Africa by focusing on people who had been released was based on her extensive research both in and outside the prison, having had access to the prison and having had carried out interviews with ex-prisoners in all kinds of formats, including focus group interviews. For her, doing research in prisons always meant coming up with a project that was considered useful by prison administrators, and then it wasn’t even yet clear if her findings could be released or would be held back by administrators for their own perusal and application. She explained that the prisoners she had interviewed were quite happy to talk about how they had ended up in prison but were very reluctant to speak out about what was going on in prison in front of their fellow inmates. She had had the opposite experience with focus groups of ex-prisoners, who recounted in great detail dynamics of sexual abuse and the informal power hierarchies that existed in prison. Being free of wardens’ and fellow inmates’ watchful eyes allowed much more freedom of expression. Because of this, she decided to conduct interviews with two ex-inmates who had been part of these focus groups and who were open to engaging intensively in follow-up conversations (Interview with SG, ICR, MR, May 2018).

KR also had not sought out research access to Johannesburg’s prisons. She had been quite successful in learning a great deal about prison life from an ex-inmate for her baccalaureate honours project, and therefore had decided to follow a similar route in her master’s project but to broaden the scope. Through a range of contacts and NGOs she hoped to get in touch with and interview several ex-inmates, including women. Ironically, despite taking a cautious approach, she was drawn into the prison much more than she had ever expected, without ever going much into the prison itself, beyond visiting a couple of prisoners during open visitation hours. She had received the contact details of an inmate who was keen to chat with her via mobile phone about his prison life. Later she was contacted by another inmate who sought out a similar conversation with her. These conversations became very intense and near-continuous, with calls and messages being sent back and forth several times during the day, and took place over many weeks and months (Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018).

Meanwhile, MR originally tried to get access to the prison in Giyani, Limpopo. The hope was that because it was a rather remote and provincial prison that the ‘red tape’ to get permission would be less of an obstacle. But this was not the case. It appeared that MR’s letter to request access, which he had delivered to prison administrators, was just gathering dust and it wasn’t clear who could be contacted to follow up. As his was a master’s research project, there was no time to lose. So he expediently shifted his attention towards local gang members, most of whom claimed to have served time in prison (Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018).

This is how it came about that each of the three researchers studied the prison from outside and, in the case of SG and MR, with people who had already been released, being able to access different but highly expressive versions of inmates’ and former inmates’ experiences. Putting these narratives next to each other, a common pattern came to the fore, illuminating how the prison experience was revived beyond its physical and temporal boundaries, for the purpose of capitalising on and extracting value from that experience in one way or another.

The idea of value needs to be explicated somewhat before I go into the three cases here. By using the concept of value to describe the similarity among the three cases in terms of keeping the prison experience alive, I wish to foreground two aspects. First, the aspect of exchange and equivalence, as in monetary value and labour: keeping the prison experience alive can yield some kind of actual income for survival. Second, the question of absolute value or virtue (Lambek 2008), in the sense of respect and dignity conferred in relation to having been in prison: the prison experience is rendered meaningful through a particular narrative and performance. This narrative or performance finds a willing and respective audience that in return bestows on the ex-prisoner social recognition (Lambek 2008). While monetary value is seen as fluid and changing, and virtue as absolute and transcendental (Lambek 2008), in a capitalist society those two aspects are often interdependent even though they position themselves in opposition to each other. This double valence of value, and the double bind it can pose, will become clearer as in the following three cases of the production of value.

By looking at the receptive audiences, all of whom decide whether an account of prison experience is actually of value, something else is also revealed. Each of these three performances of the prison experience alludes to an aspect of local as well as national context - with varying global inflections but in combination quite peculiar to South Africa. The witnessing performance speaks to the long history of a progressive but ultimately liberal rights regime that has made its mark in South Africa and that has found its eventual culmination in its post-apartheid Constitution (Comaroff 2001, Klug 2000). The motivating performance finds its resonance in the long history of Christianity (Elphick, Davenport, and Davenport 1996) and its confessional mode. Confession can become state practice, for example in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Posel 2019). But more generally speaking, it exists as a popular moral mode built upon the insistence of neoliberal figments of choice and responsibility in a society of otherwise arrested development (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000, Gillespie 2008). Finally, the intimidating performance, with stories of gang violence both inside and outside the prison, has a long history in the making of South African cities as a form of counterculture if not alternative governance (Steinberg 2005, van Onselen 2008). Each of these forms takes place within animated contexts for a discerning audience that is then complicit in making the prison experience valuable. Or in the sense of Ian Hacking (2004), who puts Foucauldian discourses together with Erving Goffman’s (1961, 1963, 1967) institutional processes, these contexts are key in ‘making up people’ - in this case, making ex-prisoners forever prisoners. At the same time, it shows how South Africa’s public cultures - both longue duree and contemporary, and both popular and official - are intractably connected to and complicit with the imaginaries of what prisons do and should do.

Recounting trauma

I will start with the ethnographic crumbs left by SG and her account of her research process, on which she elaborated in our interview session. In the world of local and international prison advocacy, especially among NGOs critically concerned with conditions of imprisonment, prison experience can be turned into a form of belonging, if not offering the resemblance of an occupation and even an occasional stipend. The prisoner experience, recounted if not confessed in the form of detailed traumatic events and presented as a witness account, becomes valuable material with which NGOs can authenticate their advocacy and policy interventions. Their main mode of language is a legal one that makes reference both to national and international human rights frameworks, and witness accounts thus strengthen their raison d’etre. One of the organisations that SG is associated with, for example, declares its mission on its webpage as ‘seeking to ensure that the rights and well-being of those who are detained are respected as enshrined under the South African Constitution, laws, and international human rights norms and standards’.1 Here the affinity with the long history of human rights activism and solving of problems through ‘lawfare’, a term coined by John Comaroff (2001) and John and Jean Comaroff (2009), shines through. This legal language, as is its nature (Bourdieu 1987), however tends to apply a technical language that leaves out the emotive and descriptive side of things in order to appear unbiased and objective. This is even the case if it is legal language committed to political activism, as exemplified in the following quote from a submission by this organisation to the United Nation Human Rights Commission:

Conditions of detention in especially the large awaiting-trial prisons in metropolitan areas is well below what the legislation and Constitution require. This is in a large part due to overcrowding (as high as 300% occupation in some instances) and understaffing (in one case 49% vacancy rate). Poor services and understaffing subject such prisoners to prolonged and continuous ill treatment.[1] [2]

While this muted and legalistic language might manage to harness the power of courts or covenant-based international institutions, it often fails to mobilise popular support and to compel institutions, governments, or funders into action (Van Schnitzler 2014). Here, the witness account provides a visceral way for people to understand the abuse prisoners are subjected to by both wardens and fellow inmates, which then provokes a reaction of outrage.

To become valuable within the context of prison advocacy, the witness account needs to take a particular form: the more vivid and detailed, the better. But this presents a difficulty for recently released prisoners, for whom such trauma may be too recent to recount. SG describes the thinking about when it is best to involve an ex-prisoners in interviews about their experience:

L. actually got released after his first week in prison but he was saying that it took him years to get over the shock and trauma of that. So we often think, should we talk to people as they step out. But actually I don’t think this would be a good time to talk to them. I think there is something about being able to look back, and to making sense about it all. Which can be very valuable, although obviously it is very different.

(Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018)

As SG’s comment makes clear, the retelling (which might lead to a reliving) of the experience can happen at different moments, which are imagined as yielding different kinds of information. A former prisoner’s inability to speak about traumatic things is set off against the authenticity that comes with the immediacy of the experience; a former prisoner long released may be able to speak more composedly but this may involve a certain level of interpretation, or ‘sense-making’.

This indeed turns out to be a fine balance, one that needs to be negotiated between the ex-prisoner and the organisations assessing the value of the ex-pris- oner’s account of his experience. SG related that one of her informants was very much inspired by the interview process and how it helped him to make sense of his time in prison. As an extension of the sense-making side of the process, he chose to write a motivational story' of overcoming. This was promptly rejected by an editor, who commented that he was more intrigued by the gruesome details of the original account rather than the motivational slant, where everything seemed to have a purpose and a happy end. There is thus a certain fetishism at play within humanitarian prison advocacy, which privileges a retelling of the prison experience as traumatic, and unresolved, event. This mode uses details in an uncanny immediacy. First-person accounts of suffering, in prison in this case, are a classic genre within the humanitarian world, meant to produce empathy (Halttunen 1995, Hesford 2004, Hunt 2008). For example, Amnesty International reports always accompany a more sober analysis of human rights abuses with first-person accounts. The reliving of the prison experience, enabled through the interview process after having been in prison, yields the necessary' detail that allows for the desired form of witnessing and the desired effects it produces.

SG’s organisation, for example, has a powerful feature on their webpage where three digital audio narratives are posted, recounting such immediate experiences. The site states:

Isak, Francois, and Thabo decided to help bring prisoner rape out of the shadows, and raise public awareness about this widespread violation of fundamental human rights. These are the first South African survivors of prisoner rape to tell their stories in this way.[3]

These narratives are powerful indeed; they leave a visceral and lasting impression due to the detailed account of abuse.

But, as SG explained, these stories are not randomly extracted. Such retelling is embedded in a process of building social relationships of therapy and care, if not occasional friendships. The organisation does recognise that the retelling of the prison experience leads to a certain reliving of the trauma. This is exactly what makes the account so powerful, as it allows the listener to somehow put themselves in the prisoner’s shoes. Out of gratitude, responsibility, as well as sustainability, or in other words, simply in exchange, the organisation takes care of those who work with them. SG recounted how this organisation fostered a caring working relationship with several of the ex-prisoners she interviewed. Talking about one of them, she said:

One man is someone we work with because we met him as a survivor of sexual violence and we have continued to work with him. And we have been able to link him to a therapist. We try to keep some boundaries about when he can call and when we have the conversation [meaning: speak about his experience]. On the other hand we are his only support in a very, very difficult time in his life. And he does huge amounts for our work. And we all have genuinely grown to like him a lot.

(Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018)

Here we can see how the work ex-prisoners do for the organisation is off-set by a semblance of friendship. The organisation also uses its resources to open the right doors for ex-prisoners to receive the attention of a therapist. In addition, the organisation’s relationship with the ex-prisoner itself takes on a therapeutic form. Certain boundaries are observed but otherwise the organisation offers itself as a safe haven, a place of momentary refuge. Here, the ex-prisoner’s traumatic experience and its aftermath are received in a caring way. At the same time, it seems like the least the organisation could do, considering the kind of work he has done for them. After all, he is providing them with something of great value: his account of his time in prison.

Thus, the ability of the ex-prisoner to keep the prison experience alive feeds into a particular moral economy, as Vinh-Kim Nguyen (2009) would argue. Nguyen (2009) describes how in West Africa the charismatic deliver)' of confessions regarding the contraction of, and life with, HIV/AIDS was ‘rewarded’ with access to ARVs. Put like this, such an exchange might sound very cynical.

But the rationale within the context of AIDS political activism is a compelling one: delivering the message well might in the long term bring about more access to ARVs for all (Nguyen 2009, pp. 375-376). This is at least the rationale of those involved in making the decision. Within this particular moral economy, those who hold the promise to be able to mobilise others hold important value (Nguyen 2009, p. 376).

A similar moral economy is at play in terms of advocating for prisoners’ human rights. The promise of the political impact of the witness account - to improve prison conditions for all - warrants valuing those who can skilfully recount their experience. In this way, there emerges a genre of prison trauma accounts that are judged against one another.

And indeed, by succeeding in this genre, highly desirable opportunities might open up for the ex-prisoner, even beyond the care of a prisoner advocacy organisation. Slightly cynical about it herself, SG related to us how one of her informants was invited to travel abroad to speak about his experience:

Because of various work he does with other NGOs he got invited by the World Health Organisation to talk about key populations in prisons etc. So this man had this amazing opportunity' because of his experience in prison, and because they want to talk to ‘real people who have really experienced it’.

(Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018)

SG went on to explain that this ex-prisoner was, unfortunately, a bit ‘too real’ of an ex-prisoner, as his parole conditions prevented him from travelling outside of South Africa. But she hoped that the invitation would be extended a second time, and he would finally be allowed to appear on an international stage, which would probably lead to further opportunities to turn his prison experience into value for himself, capitalising on the desire of NGOs for these accounts. It opened up a horizon where - as long as he was willing to keep his prison experience alive - he could become something of a travelling consultant, earning respect and maybe even a per diem.

Exemplifying redemption

Outside of the field of prison advocacy, where ‘telling it like it is’ - meaning in all its cruel and traumatic detail - produces value, there are other realms where the narrative of T was bad, I suffered in prison, but now I have seen the light’ has huge appeal. These are both popular and an institutionally supported realms. And they powerfully feed off of each other (Gillespie 2008). In the popular realm, charismatic Christianity' is suffused with stories about making a change and becoming someone new (Meyer 2004). Such ‘rebirth’ is always performed and enacted through moments of public confession (Meyer 2004, Posel 2008). At the same time, criminal justice institutions themselves thrive on narratives of overcoming and redemption, as they confirm that the prison can transform and reform people.

As a kind of motivational speaker, the prisoner can take his experience of prison and turn it into a morality tale of overcoming adversity and achieving redemption. Interestingly, the motivational speaker bridges the popular and the institutional realm. He is employed at times by prison authorities themselves, but never fails to draw a popular audience. The motivational speaker, appearing on stages both inside and outside of prison, uses the horrors and pains of prison to deter others from following a similar path, to mark the break with his own past, and finally to indicate the extent of effort involved in repenting and overcoming. In a way, this narrative renders the prison experience itself into the catalyst that brought about the change.

It is through KR’s MA thesis and some of the ethnographic crumbs that did not make it into her account that I can present here this form of value-making narrative: the motivational speech. In her interaction with prisoners through their mobile phones, KR tapped into a space which, I argue, should be considered as beyond the walls of the prison. Strictly speaking, mobile phones were not allowed, yet, not really surveilled either; in any event, they were used widely and frequently. KR writes that their presence in the everyday life of prisoners was ‘a practical norm - an “open secret”’ (Rawlings 2018, p. 33). This created a realm of uncensored expression by prisoners. One of her interlocutors, KR stated, would:

send me pictures ever)’ day. But some of the pictures seemed kind of styled, or he would kind of arrange his room in a certain way; or he and his friends would pose in a certain way so that it wasn’t just natural or organic shots of the prison but there was a lot of posing and staging.

(Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018)

These images were curated in such a way to project a dignified self, which was only possible by underplaying the prison context, abstracting oneself from it, and enriching the site with props and style.

She further told us that ‘the research never stopped, which was hard for me because we could connect 24/7. So I got calls at 5 o’clock in the morning from him. He called me last night. We can just speak whenever’ (Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018). It is in this sense that we should consider these expressions as unfolding beyond the prison walls; if not physically outside the prison, there was the possibility' of self-representation and uninterrupted engagement, which created a liminal space of free imagination and one less surveilled. It is in this space that prisoner could enact a respectable normality and emphasise their achievement. It was also in this space that they played through future scenarios, visions of what they might become after leaving the prison.

They developed such visions with reference to some of the most popular and successful South African motivational speakers, aiming to emulate if not outdo them. One of the most famous South African motivational speakers is Gayton McKenzie, who served as an iconic role model and a common reference for KR’s interlocutors (Rawlings 2018, pp. 36,41). His profile, presented on his own blog published via BlogSpot, reads as follows:

After an extraordinary life of crime, prison and redemption, Gayton McKenzie is today one of the most well-loved and sought-after motivational speakers in the country and has addressed millions of school kids, parents and businesspeople with his hard-hitting, entertaining, engaging and inspiring talk, which inspired his best-selling autobiography The Choice. ... Gayton, who, until then had been a committed criminal, having entered jail for, among other crimes, bank robbery, and who was one of the prison’s most senior gang members, turned his back on crime. After his release he went on a national campaign to combat ever-higher levels of crime in South Africa. His talks to school children were sponsored by a security company, and he is still serving as an advocate against crime. Thus far, he has reached 2 million South African school children of all ages. Thanks, in part, to his great exuberance and charisma, he was also voted the country’s top corporate speaker for three years in a row by the New Beginnings Group. Gayton’s talks examine the following themes among many others: How to turn your suffering into something that enriches you ... Gayton’s talks are extremely memorable because he shocks as much as he entertains, and he is always very entertaining. No one who’s listened to him can ever walk away quite the same person.[4]

In a similar way, quite a few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet another person who had turned his life of crime and imprisonment into that of a successful motivational speaker. This was when I was coordinating a series of so-called public encounters on crime and criminal justice.[5]1 had invited the main character of Jonny Steinberg’s book The Numbers (2005), Magadien Wenzel, as one of the speakers. Again, his was a narrative of having fallen from grace into crime, ending up in prison, where his participation in the infamous prisons gangs exacerbated the horror of prison, until he saw the light and, on release, became a motivational speaker warning others to not go down the same path. Wentzel’s presentation, which took place on a slightly frosty evening in the open air on the historical site of Constitutional Hill, had the audience enthralled. He recounted murderous gang rituals in which he was involved, including both the violence he suffered and that he inflicted. This contrasted greatly with the publicly respectable position that he had assumed by being on stage with a respectable middle-class audience listening to him. And there on stage, he was conversing eye to eye with one of South Africa’s retired constitutional judges. The narrative arc - from crime to prison to redemption - was then not just retold but very much enacted in that moment, with the audience both witnessing and confirming it. By bringing prison life to life he demonstrated the distance he had put between himself and the prison, and emphasised the achievement of his ‘rehabilitation’. And yet, it was firstly the identity of having been to prison that was confirmed in the encounter between him and the mesmerised audience.

The narrative structure of McKenzie’s and Wenzel’s accounts is compellingly similar to how KR’s interlocutors present themselves and see their future. This isn’t a coincidence, of course. A similar script, and economy of value and recognition, was already underlying these accounts, then, and continue to do so for those who try' to follow. One interlocutor, M., was more flexible and instrumental in his self-representation. He enacted the role of motivational speaker in combination with other forms of self-styling (Rawlings 2018, pp. 47-53). T., another interlocutor, however, literally embodied the role of his conversion (Rawlings 2018, p. 39). In her thesis, KR recalls T. contacting her for the first time, and introducing himself with the following statement: T have written two books already and am working on getting them published. I also have a vision to establish a company called Motivational Empire, which is going to have a great impact on Africa’ (Rawlings 2018, p. 38). He also told her that he wanted to start a publishing house with the same name (Rawlings 2018, p. 39). Together with his motivational speaking and his classes where he teaches inmates to write poetry', this made him into what KR calls a ‘star prisoner’, an expression that was repeated by the wardens. This position even gets him out of prison at times, to accompany the director when he went to speak to school children (Rawlings 2018, pp. 34-35).

In his book manuscript, he describes in great detail how he went from crime to prison and then ‘saw the light’ (Rawlings 2018, pp. 40-41). Again, while the narrative is all about overcoming the experience of prison, the experience of prison has to remain in the picture in order to mark the significance of his change. Such narratives hinge on a rupture with the past, to which prison as the lowest of the lowest points in life gives rise. As KR writes, ‘the prison, according to T., was a necessary' setting for his moral transformation’ (Rawlings 2018, p. 45). In our interview, she went on to explain that the prison:

is always construed in a positive way. Like: T wouldn’t be here’ or T wouldn’t be who I am today’, T wouldn’t be alive without the prison’ ... Some of it is true, some of it, I feel, is not true, but it is always: ‘[I was] going down a path and the prison is the only thing which pulled me out of that path’. So it is always talked about actually as a positive thing in someone’s life, as horrible as it has been.

(Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018)

This narrative arc is supported by popular audiences, who want to believe that crime is about choice and morals, and by criminal justice systems that want to believe that prison can be rehabilitative. Infused with this meaning of triggering conversion, prison becomes valuable. As KR puts it, ‘Redemptive narratives imbue incarceration with meaning and purpose, empower otherwise powerless prisoners space by making them agents of God, provide inmates with the language and framework of forgiveness, and produce a sense of control over the future’ (Rawlings 2018, p. 27).

I am especially interested here in how prisoners imagine their futures after prison. When T. is released, for example, he immediately embarks on realising his plan. KR describes in the postscript to her thesis how she met up with him a few months after his release (Rawlings 2018, p. 75). It soon became very clear to him that things were very different in prison and he felt the nasty reality of failing to reintegrate pulling at him. The wider context is clearly less attuned to his mission than he had hoped. But he declares he will persevere. After all, what else is there for him? The only thing he has is his experience of having been in prison, and he plans to keep it alive through his publications and motivational speaking. It is the one thing, he thinks, that can give him a life after prison.

Producing value by trumpeting street cred

The third form in which prison experience is kept alive and made valuable is an unlikely ally in this ethnographic arrangement. It involves spreading near-mythical stories, using one’s prison experience as a stepping-stone to becoming a feared gang member. This is, in terms of trajectories, the exact opposite of the previous two, and precisely what they are trying to avoid. Both the recounting of trauma and preaching of redemption are set up in such a way that the narrators distance themselves from falling back into crime. They are presented, and imagined, as the alternative to crime. Yet as Mil’s material shows, for those in youth gangs in Giyani, the trajectory of making a life after prison follows the same logic. A key resource available for them, from which they can draw some value, is their stories of having been to prison. This is especially the case considering the brutal reality of school drop-outs and youth unemployment. Instead of respectability, however, here prison experience is turned into a form of authority colloquially called ‘street cred’.

The way these three cases actually fit together is sadly ironic. It further highlights the tragedy that ex-prisoners, in order to build a life after prison, remain prisoners of their prison experience and as such can never really leave prison behind. In fact, as MR’s material shows, gang members regularly return to prison in order to ‘recharge’ the value of having been in prison.

As mentioned earlier, MR had decided to interview ex-prisoners because of the difficulties he faced with gaining access to prison itself. Just as KR communicated with men in prison through uncensored mobile phone apps, MR received accounts of prison that were uninhibited by institutional surveillance, in which the ex-prisoners were authoritatively in charge. Again, as with KR’s interlocutors, their accounts included a certain level of interpretation and embellishment. MR explained this during the interview:

When I was talking to them they were always boosting their image. They were saying that they were sort of running the things, running the prisons, running the streets. But when I was doing participant observation at the drinking areas and seeing how they were performing and so forth, it made me realise that most of the things that they were telling me was basically a lot of additions.

But it is exactly these attempts to take over authorship that reveal a sense of self-making and aspiration. And they are revealed as efforts to render the prison experience valuable, however limited by circumstance or enabled by a long history of gang culture as a form of potent counterculture (Steinberg 2005, Van Onselen 2008).

In the case of ex-prisoners who claimed membership in a local gang, this modification in the telling of their prison experience took a very particular form. MR had easy access to the gang members, as they were his peers from his childhood in Giyani and they had played soccer together. But that was not the only enabling factor for his research. As soon as the young men found out that he was now a researcher, and that he was interested in their stories and wanted to write about them they literally flocked to him. Demand for anonymity and fear of exposure, as one might commonly assume to be pertinent in the case of criminal activity, were of no concern to them. Instead, they were incredibly keen to tell their stories. And, as they said themselves, MR would make sure that the world would learn about the gang and how fearsome they were. These stories and their circulation, MR argues, are part of how they build their ‘street cred’, a form of authority that makes them into effective gang members. This is what they consider respect, which in turn allows them - here KR draws from Jensen (2008) - a form of dignity (Rismati 2019).

The foundational myth of the gang exists in the form of a circulating rumour rather than a documented history. It is the story of Jabu, the son of a traditional healer, who - in order to be safe in prison from other inmates - claimed that he was in prison for murdering someone. On his release, Jabu is rumoured to have survived prison by having killed another gang leader in prison (Risimati 2019, pp. 3-4, 34). Together with rumours about his privileged access to protective and harmful traditional medicine, this makes him into a powerful figure, who soon is able to build up a following, which he calls the ‘K9 Gang’. The name cleverly emulates the names of the famous number gangs that rule the urban gang lands of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Having been to prison thus becomes an entry requirement and, as MR argues, a rite of initiation:

Without prison credibility one cannot join the gang. For many this results in committing petty crimes just for the sake of spending time in prison and thus being able to join the gang and being viewed as ‘real men’. Prison knowledge has to be passed on, and prison hardship has to be endured for one to be eligible of a membership. The idea behind this, as communicated by the members, is to ensure that no ‘pussies’ join the gang and ruin their credibility.

(Risimati 2019, p. 39)

MR also quotes one of the gang members, Nhlamulo, as saying, ‘prison provides you with life lessons which no university can give you. I went to prison as a boy and came out a man’. MR adds that Nhlamulo is known to be ‘not a fighter but a talker’ who only spent two days in prison, but ‘yet, Nhlamulo capitalises on this’

(Risimati 2019, p. 38). The prison experience is again brought to life, this time through myths, embellishment, common knowledge about the horrors of prison life, etc., and becomes - to stay with MR’s wording - a form of capital.

But the value of this capital is not just about gang membership, or managing prison time, it is mainly about how these young men are seen by the outside world. MR also interviewed non-gang members from the neighbourhood, one of whom describes the K-9 gang:

These are young boys from the neighbouring villages and section F. They are very dangerous and are always looking for a fight. Just let them be, but make sure you salute them and most importantly make sure that you respect them.

(Risimati 2019, p. 30)

Hanging out with gang members in their popular drinking spots, where they tussled with non-gang members for dominance over space and women, one of the gang members proudly said to MR: ‘Musa, did you see how everyone fears us? Even the DJ stopped the music because of us; the bouncer did not even come near us. If you associate with us no one will touch you in Giyani’ (Risimati 2019, p. 63).

MR concludes: ‘the success of their existence depends on being known and being feared, and on the narratives people spread’ (Risimati 2019, p. 36). And what makes them fearsome is having been to prison. In our interview, MR explains that gang members even will return to prison to re-establish their credibility:

They use the prison to refresh their street cred. Their power is sort of limited. But then they have to move in and out. There is one man who said to me, ‘Prison is my second home’. So for him it is going in, coming out, so that, so people know and remember that you have been inside; and they also want them to remember the number of crimes they have committed. They know the kind of crimes to commit to not go in for a very long time. Because it becomes useless to be inside for a very long time. So you have to be in and out, in and out, in and out.

(Interview with SG, KR, MR, May 2018)

While one must take some of these remarks with a pinch of salt, as exaggerations, the instrumentalism expressed here points us clearly in the direction of the argument of this chapter. I am struck by how the length of being in prison is negotiated here. A few days in prison can already be enough to ignite the value of prison, but the value ceases in terms of doing things in the outside world if one is inside too long. It also points to the relentlessness of this path: nothing can be built up; there is no real way forward and passage onto something else. When gang members move away from prison, both in terms of time and of not doing any more crime, when, in other words, the prison experience fades away, there is nothing left for them, so they have to return. Prison is the only resource that can be made productive in these young men’s lives.

98 Hornberger Conclusion

There is always the danger when putting things next to each other in order to compare them that one finds patterns at the cost of underplaying the cultural and historical specificities of each case. This is especially so here, as I was not the primary researcher of these three separate cases and did not have the usual intimate relationship with the research data that is normally yielded by ethnographic inquiry. Originally, I never meant to compare these cases. In fact, I did not actually mean to write about prison at all, as I have been, in the past, focused on policing. But as I followed these cases with the interest of a supervisor and an attentive colleague, I was deeply struck by how each of these cases revealed a similar cynical and tragic reality: for many ex-prisoners, the only hope to make it on the outside is to keep their experience of prison alive. Having been to prison, their only value is now that they have survived prison and can tell stories about it. Rejected by society and maybe by their families as well, they probably did not find much recognition or sources of dignity before they went to prison, and this may have played a role in driving them into crime. In order to not fall back into the abyss of disregard and rejection, they hold on to this ‘new’ value they have acquired. They do so even at the cost of remaining in prison, in a performative way, or returning to prison when the stories lose their charge. They may also return to prison if they fail to tell their stories in a desired way, making those stories less valuable, or if the value returned in real monetary currency is not enough to make a living from.

The idea of a ‘moral economy’ suggests that this is not an ‘immoral’ or negative exchange as such, meaning without rationale, consideration and return. Value appears as an effect of the lines of discernment rooted in the rationale and consideration and is further confirmed by what the stories are exchanged for, be it recognition, respect, fear or power, care or friendship, or a career as a consultant or director of an NGO.

It is here that wider contexts come into play, which underwrite each of the forms in which the experience of prison is being shaped in order to be of value. What is striking is that none of these contexts are primarily about prison. The liberal activist rights regime is about human dignity and freedom; the intersection of neoliberal self-making and Christian morality is about moral agency and virtue, the street gang is about material survival and prowess. Yet, and I think this is the insidious part, they each seem to have found in the prison experience a powerful confirmation of their value system: The abuse of people who have already been stripped by the state of their freedom to move strikes at the heart of classic civil and political human rights. To repent having committed a violent crime and to rebuild one’s life gives ultimate credence to notions of agency and accountability that are central to charismatic Christianity and to neoliberal notions of responsibility. Finally, to survive prison, which is known to be dehumanising and a dumping ground for a surplus population, confirms that respect and dignity will never be found within mainstream society and that power will always come from outside the law.

In the end, as critical as all three accounts are of the prison, they are deeply invested in it and entrench its existence, especially in its abusive form. They contribute to its meaning while their own meaning depends on it. It is at this intersection that the ex-prisoner is recaptured within an enduring imagination of the prison, where the prison extends far beyond its physical and temporal boundaries, as well as beyond its immediate disciplinary purpose. In this way, for the prisoner and the ex-prisoner, the story of having been in prison never ends. He either keeps it alive in a performative way or he falls into the abyss of misrecognition, which is a sure path back to prison.


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Part III

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