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Prison and the politics of the ‘redemption script’ A view from Johannesburg, South Africa

Kathy Rawlings

South Africa’s criminal justice system has undergone a series of fundamental changes in the decades since the formal end of apartheid in the mid- 1990s, resulting most strikingly in the transformation of prisons into ‘Correctional Centres’ focused not on punishment, but instead on the principles of rehabilitation and reform. These changes are woven into a wider project of post-apartheid freedom and have been cast as integral to the country’s transformation. Policy changes and discursive adjustments have worked to disentangle the image of the prison from its fraught historical relationship to racism and to the violence of apartheid, rendering it a productive and positive component of the ‘new South Africa’. As the African National Congress (ANC) rose to power in the 1990s, they proposed a vision for a criminal justice system that would end the use of punitive imprisonment and move towards a radically different approach to crime prevention and security.[1] But several complex and intersecting forces have in fact further embedded the prison in South Africa’s material and ideological landscape. One of the most significant factors is the discourse of penal reform, which is premised upon betterment and rehabilitation; in this framework, ‘Correctional Centres’ and ‘Centres of Excellence’ supposedly provide a space for the elaboration of moral reflection, skills training, and spiritual redemption. Central to this seemingly benevolent agenda is the image of offenders as self-determining agents in need of moral rehabilitation, and of the prison as a monastic space capable of catalysing change at the level of the individual. The master narrative of criminal justice in South Africa is therefore one that places great emphasis on the moral fault of criminals and on the capacity of prisons to make those criminals ‘better’. This has produced a profoundly distorted understanding of the roots of crime and the nature of prison: when accountability is presented in individualising terms, then crime looks like the product of individual choices rather than the result of wider social, political, and economic structures that track vulnerable people into criminal behaviour. Furthermore, the prison maintains its benevolent guise.[2]

This popular narrative is flawed. Despite much political and financial support, penal reform has done little to change the prison in South Africa. Prisons do not work to lower crime rates or make people feel safer (Muntingh 2008; Dissel 2008).[3] They famously fail to fulfil basic rights for prisoners: better understood as warehouses for the poor, replete with endemic overcrowding, the risk of disease, arbitrary violence, malnutrition, and associated with social stigmatisation and the loss of dignity, post-apartheid prisons ‘share all too much in common with their apartheid precursors’ (Buntman 2009, p. 407). Beyond these conditions, what is also alarming is the deeply disproportionate distribution of the prison population: South African prisons are filled with people who are ‘almost exclusively black and overwhelmingly poor’ (Buntman 2009, p. 407). About 80% of approximately 160,000 inmates are black, demonstrating an undeniable structural relationship between race, class, and incarceration. As Kelly Gillespie (2008, p. 83) writes:

The structural logic of punishment could hardly be clearer: prisoners who share the country’s overcrowded prison cells come disproportionately from poor black communities underwritten by apartheid violation, communities to which they will return with even less chance of employment outside of the criminal economies that have already led them to incarceration.

But this logic is consistently obscured by the country’s attachment to a narrative that elides the complexity of criminality in post-apartheid South Africa, one that makes the prison an imaginative panacea into which individuals are sent to become better. Rather than helping to radically change the country, it is clear that prisons in fact have a hand in perpetuating the structures that should have ended when apartheid did.

It is curious, then, that a belief in rehabilitation is embodied by the very people who suffer from this misunderstanding the most: inmates, whose lived experiences point to the reality of structural violence rather than to the clear-cut narrative of moral agency. Stories of redemption are common in South African prisons - stories which repeat the idea that criminal acts are choices borne of moral corruption and, consequently, that the prison’s function is to contribute to the transformation of criminals into better people. Narratives of redemption contain at their core the same ideologies of betterment that lie at the centre of discourses on penal reform. In this way, prisoners who tell this story and who enact the ‘redemptive script’ (Maruna 2001) can be seen as active coproducers of an idea that denies the structural roots of crime and sustains the legitimacy of the defunct institutions that hold them captive. Taken uncritically, narrative biographies that follow this redemptive script provide testimonies for the ‘good’ work that prisons do.

How can we explain why inmates incorporate this script into their biographies? Loi'c Wacquant (2016, p. 22) explains that punishment in its contemporary incarnation:

must be viewed not through the narrow and technical prism of repression but by recourse to the notion of production ... engendering] new categories and discourses, novel administrative and government bodies, fresh social types and associated forms of knowledge.

Prisons are constitutive of narratives, subjectivities, social positions, and identities; in this way, stories of moral redemption can no longer be taken as straightforward reflections of reality but as the result of a narrative negotiation between the individual and the institution. In this chapter, I consider the institutional, social, and psychological motivations for telling a story of personal change, offering a narratively oriented analysis that casts the reform story in a more critical light than it has been cast in before. I suggest that inhabiting the redemptive script serves offenders in a narrow sense by working as a coping mechanism, but that it ultimately occludes the reality of structural violence by rendering passive voices that could otherwise challenge the status quo. Are these types of stories ‘weapons of the weak’ or is it more suitable to think of them, as Sharlene Swartz, James Harding, and Ariane De Lannoy (2012, p. 32) do, as ‘weapons against them’? Using excerpts from interviews conducted in prisons in Johannesburg, this chapter shows that they can be both. Before discussing the harmful effects of this insidious narrative, I will first consider its role as a ‘weapon of the weak’: what do inmates gain from enacting the redemptive script? Why is it mobilised by so many inmates? Why is this narrative so arresting?

Stories in prison

On a spring day in 2017, a small inmate-run group called ‘Poetry Passion Project’ was launched at Boksburg Correctional Facility in East Johannesburg.[4] Welcoming the small group of wardens, inmates, and local journalists who had come for the launch, an official said, ‘Our greatest goal is to rehabilitate the next generation - you guys in here. We’ve got a lot of programmes in the pipeline - education, therapy, art - but it’s up to you to turn your own lives around’.

The official then introduced the founder of the group, Thapelo,[5] describing him as a ‘star prisoner’ who had successfully repented for his crimes by taking responsibility for his own moral recuperation. Since his arrival at Boksburg in 2005, the official said, Thapelo had been an active member of the prison community, competing in public speaking and debate competitions, taking part in trial rehabilitation programmes, working enthusiastically with the church, and founding other inmate-run groups like the ‘Making a Difference Group’ and ‘Brothers Rise Up’. Thapelo stood up and offered the crowd a brief account of his life: a youth riddled with poor decisions, which led to a life sentence in 1999, then a brief stint as a gang member, and finally his spiritual and moral transformation at Boksburg. For the last decade, he has been writing books, giving speeches, motivating fellow inmates, and preaching at the prison’s church. His speech was laden with the rhetoric of transformation:

Welcome, brothers and sisters, to the launch of Poetry Passion Project. ... Poetry allowed me to fight my demons, to face the music, and to forgive myself. Writing and public speaking are my passions. In them, I became a better man. Brothers, don’t be weighed down by the burdens of your past decisions. Rise up and be better. It is your choice. ... When you take back your story, you give yourself a chance to repent. I encourage all of you to rewrite your story, like I rewrote mine.

Jonny Steinberg (2004) has shown how prisons in South Africa are ‘interminable labyrinths’ of‘pure story’. Indeed, stories proliferate in prison spaces because they bind people together by preserving myths (Steinberg 2004), but they also offer a means for self-preservation on social and psychological levels. A number of scholars in the last decade have begun to take notice of the relationship of stories to the experience of imprisonment, particularly in the field of criminology (Maruna and Copes 2005; Jimerson and Oware 2006; Presser 2016). ‘Narrative criminology’ posits that stories are privileged sites for refashioning one’s identity, especially in contexts linked to deprivation, alienation, or stigmatisation. Narrative criminologists illuminate how stories operate in processes of rehabilitation and desistance, offering a useful framework for thinking about the narrative negotiations that occur with such prevalence in the context of the prison. Prison can lead to the ‘disorientation of a person’s self-narrative’ by threatening self-esteem, feelings of agency, and ultimately, identity; ‘central to the stigmatising process experienced by prisoners is the loss of one’s identity as an individual and the transformation into a ‘type’ or a member of a larger, undifferentiated group: a prisoner, offender, criminal’ (Maruna, Wilson, and Curran 2006, p. 180).[6] A later discussion with Thapelo helped to clarify what being arrested and incarcerated meant for him:

When I was arrested, I felt like my life was over. I didn’t know who I was anymore ... My mother, she hated me, because I was getting into so much trouble. She was ashamed that her son was in prison. I lost my way, I didn’t have a path. I wasn’t me anymore, I was a criminal.

Mandla, one of Thapelo’s fellow inmates and collaborators, shared a similar sense of loss in his description. Mandla was 19 when he was arrested and sentenced to eight years for his involvement in an armed robbery:

Coming to prison made me feel dirty, like a rat or something. I kept thinking about life outside, before I came inside here. I lost that child I used to be; now I was a prisoner. I thought this was how everybody would see me forever, even if I came out. To be honest, I was hopeless for a long time.

Both of these reflections capture a series of losses: of dignity, of control, and of hope. As a result of this effect, the prison becomes an extreme environment for ‘the reconstruction of identity through narrative’: narratively negotiating a life story becomes a powerful way to counter the losses and deprivations brought on by imprisonment (Maruna et al. 2006, p. 69). In his comprehensive anthropological study of storytelling, Michael Jackson (2002, p. 5) claims that telling stories is a human compulsion rooted in a desire for agency and freedom: ‘To reconstitute events in a story,’ he says, ‘is no longer to live those events in passivity, but to actively rework them, both in dialogue with others and within one’s own imagination’. Narratives are not merely straightforward accounts of past events but are attempts to gain symbolic control over the world. They are fundamental, ontological parts of human life (Ricouer 1984; Bruner 1991; Somers 1994; Holstein and Gubrium 2000; Jackson 2002). For Jerome Bruner (1990 in Jackson 2002, p. 35), storytelling is a form of‘master)' play’ - a way of reconfiguring relations in ways that alter the balance between subject and object, allowing those who interpret their lives narratively to experience a feeling of agency in a world that seems otherwise to ‘discount, demean, and disempower us’. These insights might help to explain why prisoners are, in Jonny Steinberg’s (2004) words, such ‘compulsive storytellers’. As Thapelo gave his speech, it became clear that reclaiming authorship over his life by ‘rewriting his story’ was central to his positive transformation. Rewriting one’s story, as Thapelo did, provides a barrier against despair, alienation, and futility.

198 Rawlings The redemption script

In his book Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, the criminologist Shadd Maruna (2001) argues that all ‘selves’ are contained within stories. If a story of change is told, and if stories contain ‘selves’, then it can be said that the subject of the story - the ‘self - has changed as well. An ‘offender’ or ‘criminal’ identity, Maruna says, can be exchanged for a normative and prosocial one through narrative negotiation and storytelling. Through ‘redemption scripts’, offenders can make sense of their pasts and construct new and hopeful futures by arranging a life history along a trajectory of positive change rooted in individual agency. The ‘scripts’ are conventional and socially sanctioned stories that produce coherent autobiographies in their use, rendering past criminal behaviour a meaningful and necessary component of a longer narrative of growth. The prevalence of this script in the stories about choices, mistakes, moral reform, Christian salvation, social upward mobility, and prosperous futures told by inmates in South African prisons is striking, especially in a context that appears so patently to contradict them. Motivational speakers, preachers, entrepreneurs, and poets abound in this context, and appear to construct their ‘personal myths’ according to a similar script to the one that Maruna suggests the ex-convicts in his study do.

An autobiographical document written by Thapelo provides a salient and quite literal example of the way that ‘personal myths’ can be constructed by mapping a difficult life onto a redemption narrative. In 197 pages and 30,091 words, Thapelo captures a life, from birth until the present, that is riddled with difficulty. Framed as a journey to Thapelo’s ‘rightful place’, in 11 richly detailed chapters, the book offers episodes including ‘The age of innocence’ and ‘The seed of corruption’, which capture his formative years as a criminal; ‘My darkest hour’, which describes his first encounter with the criminal justice system; and ‘The survival’, which details his time as member of the 26s gang after being sentenced to life for murder.[7] Rather than foreground the structural forces that clearly bore down on his young life - his almost daily exposure to violence in the township where he grew up, his mother’s joblessness, an absence of social guidance at school, coercion into drug use - Thapelo interestingly chooses to paint a picture of his own moral corruption.

His story takes a turn during a chapter entitled ‘The Day of Salvation’, which describes an epiphanic moment of change in an encounter with God. It is after this moment that Thapelo’s shift from ‘hardened criminal’ and ‘gangster’ to ‘man of God’ and ‘motivational speaker’ becomes clear. This shift is presented as a moment of rupture devoid of complexity or difficulty, but when I spoke with Thapelo about this time in an interview it became clear that it was not this simple. For years after he found the church, Thapelo struggled to break tree from his membership in the gang in prison.[8] This structure is deeply coercive, and it took Thapelo being transferred from one prison into another in order for him to ‘start again’. The chapters ‘Icon of Change’ and ‘My Rightful Place’ describe Thapelo’s current activity and delineate his many achievements: participating in public speaking competitions, becoming captain of his debate team and the travel associated with this role, and speaking at Department of Correctional Services events. His final chapter, ‘Burying the Past’, makes a case for self-forgiveness and includes letters to the families of his deceased victims and the woman that he raped.

The book provides a very literal example of the process of constructing a personal myth that many inmates take up upon imprisonment. Thapelo’s life history clearly illustrates how, using the framework of redemption, a difficult life can be transformed into a clear and legible narrative. Filtering his past through this narrative template imbues it with meaning and fills his imprisonment with purpose. It is empowering because it allows him to render his own shameful or traumatic past experiences as necessary for his development into, as one chapter title phrases it, an ‘Icon of change’. He is able to forgive himself and to move on to a more hopeful and generative future. The autobiography insists through repetition that Thapelo is a change agent, a poet, a motivational speaker, and a different man - it is clear that authoring his story in this way allowed him to take control of his narrative and, even more, manifest a new and improved identity'.

Insights garnered through conversations with Thapelo, Mandla, and other inmates in Johannesburg’s prisons echo the themes in Thapelo’s autobiography. Jack, an inmate at Leeuwkop Prison in Northern Johannesburg,[9] has been in prison for six years. He was charged with theft and assault in 2013. In recounting his life history, he describes the prison as a space in which he came into his own as a man and found his purpose:

I used to think about all this time spent in prison as wasted time, like every- one was living their lives and I was stuck in here, wasting away, rotting. But I think differently about it now. I came here for a reason.

His words recast imprisonment as a valuable experience: instead of viewing it as wasted time, Jack views his incarceration as being instrumental to his change. Jack ‘found his voice’ in prison through public speaking and debating, and in the last few years has enjoyed success in national competitions, as well as recognition from the Department of Correctional Services and from his fellow inmates. His family are also proud of him:

I am not someone to be ashamed of anymore. I am grateful in a way that I came to prison. It took a lot of time but I eventually realised that coming here was important. I needed to stop being a child and start taking responsibility for my actions. It was up to me to turn my life around. I still have a lot of work to do but I know I am on the right path.

Thapelo echoed this sentiment. The prison, for him, was a gift and an opportunity to discover his talents and his purpose, allowing him to get ‘onto the right path’. Without incarceration, according to Thapelo, he wouldn’t have started any of the projects that he had, or become a motivational speaker in order to inspire others in similar situations. The redemption script renders his past criminal actions and subsequent imprisonment as vital ingredients for his present and future success. Mandla, who is also a motivational speaker at Boksburg, said:

I realised why God put me here. He has tested me in many ways, and I failed. But I will not fail in doing the work he has set out for me for the future. I am going to change lives. When I come out, I am going to make a great impact.

This insight is instructive. Beyond providing meaning, stories of redemption are empowering as well. A common trope among those who inhabit the identity of reformed prisoner is the role of‘change agent’: one who puts a traumatic past to good use by devoting their future to helping others. Maruna (2001) notes that encouraging others is a useful dynamic for sustaining personal change; the power and influence associated with helping others replaces the powerlessness that usually accompanies incarceration. Another powerful way to sustain change and absolve distress or guilt is by embracing Christian salvation. Religious redemption is commonly woven into the reform stories of inmates because Christianity provides people with a language and a framework for forgiveness (Maruna et al. 2006, p. 174). In the above quote, Mandla emphasises God’s role in his transformation: in order to be able to perform God’s work, he needed to move beyond his past by forgiving himself. Thapelo confirms the relationship of religion to self-forgiveness:

I didn’t know how anyone could forgive me for what I did. For a long time I didn’t forgive myself. But God forgave me. After I joined the church it was like something got lifted off my shoulders, I started to really believe that my life would not always be so bad.

Inhabiting the Christian salvation narrative allowed Thapelo to explore a new social identity. Before the encounter with God that he describes in his book, Thapelo was a gang member in prison. He describes being filled with anger and confusion and being far past the point of forgiveness. The idea that God could forgive him presented a way out of his perceived deadlock. Aphorisms from scripture are woven into his interpretation of imprisonment, and in his book Thapelo frequently cites the Bible. In one chapter he writes: ‘Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!”’ in a clear declaration of redemption. Citing Isaiah 43:18-19, he writes: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!’” The prevalence of religious conversion in prison may have something to do with the narrative framework that it offers, as well as security, community, and an alternative to gang structures. Christianity is a specifically popular choice for prisoners in South Africa because it is incorporated normatively into policy and practice at the level of the state and by officials working in the institutions (Maruna et al. 2006; Gillespie 2008).

There are other discourses besides religious ones that inmates can use to orient themselves towards future success - secular notions of upward social and economic mobility also appear in the redemptive stories of South Africa’s prisoners. Jack, for example, refashioned his identity using the neoliberal logic of individual self-determination. He explained to me that he was always collaborating with people inside and outside of prison to make money in a range of ‘business ventures’, from making beads from recycled cardboard to smuggling cell phones inside to sell to other inmates. The ‘entrepreneurial self constructed by Jack through these activities is rooted in a normative desire to improve his economic position. Having money allows him to feel more normal:

At least I know I can send money to my mother if she needs it, or I can send her money to buy me new shoes. I can send airtime to my girlfriend. I am not just some baby that everybody needs to take care of. I am independent ... as much as I can be in this place.

This admission shows how agency is produced by ‘redemptive’ stories in whatever shape they take. Jack feels prepared for life after release, noting how he has refined his skills as a businessman by learning how to ‘hustle’ in prison. This exhibits a neoliberal desire to establish inclusion in a wider, ‘conventional’ group, just like those who embrace Christianity in order to gain a sense of normalcy and belonging. Spiritual salvation, economic gain, and upward social mobility are powerful motifs in the narrative biographies of prisoners, and the emphasis placed on personal responsibility and moral agency in these stories reveal a wish to hold open the possibility of agency in the future. By retaining their agency, inmates participate in the wider discourse of aspiration that, as many have already noted, prevails in post-apartheid South Africa. An important study on youth behaviour in South African townships argues that impoverished youth, ‘aspire toward mobility, considered the post-apartheid destiny for free South Africans, by employing the normative narrative of potential and elevated personal goals’ (Swartz et al. 2012, p. 28). Similarly, through the redemption narrative, inmates replace their disenfranchised social positions with normative ones. In this way, narratives of change clearly have ‘survival value’ (Davies 2005 in Swartz et al. 2012, p. 33) because they help inmates to subvert their depreciated social positions. There are also practical reasons for the repetition of the reform story. Thapelo, Jack, and Mandla have gained acceptance, respect, access, and a level of safety by inhabiting the role of rehabilitated prisoner; the script can be viewed then as a kind of currency in the moral economy of the institution.

The above excerpts illustrate how the redemption script insulates inmates from despair, alienation, and futility; adopting this narrative engenders a sense of agency, control, and hope, minimising the powerlessness and uncertainty that incarceration brings. Steinberg (2004, p. 18) describes stories in South Africa’s prisons as ‘weapons, tools, the stuff of action’, and as such they can be seen as a meaningful coping strategy that helps offenders find ‘reason and purpose in the bleakest of life histories’ (Maruna 2001, p. 9). But this can only be achieved by eliding messiness and complexity - by smoothing over the creases of a difficult life history in order to produce a coherent narrative of redemption that fits into the script. Maruna (2001, p. 9) importantly notes that redemption scripts rely on ‘wilful, cognitive distortion’ and usually bear ‘almost no resemblance to the ugly realities’ of the offenders’ lives. They are ‘pleasant lies’ (Maruna 2001, p. 145) - but what is the cost of telling them?

The problem with the script

Popular and highly prevalent descriptions of prison life that rely on artificial sounding cliches (narrative tropes, biblical verses, quotes, and simplistic motivational ideas) come from individual inmates’ desires to protect their sense of self and dignity, but ultimately are drawn from wider institutional paradigms. Selfnarratives develop in response to multiple and complex social and institutional forces: people adopt self-stories based on a limited range of narrative archetypes imposed on or offered to them (Foucault 1988, cited in Maruna 2001, p. 8). The social availability of these stories, and the assimilation of prisoners’ experiences to these narratives, shows institutional power at work (Foote and Frank 1999, cited in Maruna 2001, p. 8). For this reason, the agency that inmates experience when they tell this story must be understood in dialectical relation to the institutional structures that constrain the selection of discourses from which they can draw. Sasha Gear and Marie Lindegaard (2014, p. 50) write that, in prison, ‘agency is not clearly distinguishable from the structural pressures that shape it’. The boundary between agency and constraint is always shifting in prison; in their pursuit of control and freedom, offenders draw from and therefore end up repeating the hegemonic narrative that works structurally to occlude the violent realities of their lives. The problem with redemptive scripts, and much of the scholarship that interrogates it, is that they do not sufficiently attend to the social and historical contexts within which they are told.

Beyond their stories of reform, Thapelo, Mandla, and Jack all have strikingly similar life histories. All three of them received limited and limiting forms of education and grew up in precarious circumstances. They were all exposed to violence when they were in their teens, and all found themselves committing crimes before the age of 16. This is a common story for young black men in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid persists into the present and shapes the lives of many South Africans, shrinking life chances, exposing individuals to violence, and subjecting them to systemic vulnerability. A number of prison abolitionists have clearly argued that issues of race, class, and gender intersect with the criminal justice system, leading to the disproportionate imprisonment of poor black men in places like the United States and South Africa. Angela Davis (2003, p. 16) writes that prisons:

function ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs - it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.

And when prisoners tell redemption stories they compound this problem. ‘Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings,’ Davis argues. ‘Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy,’ she asserts, ‘are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages’ (Davis 1998). Is it possible that seemingly benign stories of salvation in prison help to disappear social problems, too? Those inmates who assume and repeat the narrative template of redemption are, I have tried to argue, complicit in the erasure of the structural forces that bear down upon their lives. When the complexity of an inmate’s difficult life is replaced by a more digestible and moralising story, the precariousness and violence that so many South Africans live with disappears, too.


The redemptive script supports the ‘reliability’ (Labov 1972) of life stories for inmates: offenders must participate in the ‘pleasant lies’ of popular narratives that reject ambiguity (Maruna 2001, p. 145). This finds an echo in the master narratives spun by the state, and in the governmental rhetoric that suffuses criminal justice in South Africa. The Department of Correctional Services’ approach to criminal justice, captured most saliently in the White Paper of 2004 (Department of Correctional Services 2004), places emphasis on morals because the facts of structural violence and the complex interrelation of race, class, and crime are perceived as insurmountable (Gillespie 2008, p. 76). The story of moral recuperation through rehabilitation, woven into public discourse, policy, and practice, has gained hegemony because of its ‘reliability’ in the context of transformation after apartheid, which is built discursively upon democratic unity, harmony, and forgiveness.[10] It is precisely for this reason that the stories of change told by inmates in South Africa’s prisons must not be taken at face value: this narrative is employed because it provides prisoners with a coping mechanism and a measure of agency during imprisonment. They should not be taken as proof of how well the prison is rehabilitating its inhabitants, or how successful the project of penal reform has been. It is imperative not to take these self-making narrative practices as romantic forms of resistance or as dynamic and powerful forms of agency' within the confines of a disciplining space. Conversely, they appear to be the complex products of it.

Uncritical readings of redemption stories do not engender accurate understandings of the carceral continuum that tracks vulnerable people into prison; in fact, they often lead to warped perceptions of the ‘good’ work that prisons perform. These stories are often, it seems, responses to the deprivations of prison life and, even more, the results of the perceived insurmountability of the structural violence that characterises life for much of South Africa’s prison population. The vernacular of redemption that many inmates speak has a hand in reproducing the master narrative that sustains the prison by contributing to the denial and mis- recognition of structural violence as a major contributing factor to crime. It has been argued that vulnerable people’s attachments to fantasies of the ‘good life’ can be precisely what eclipses the sources of their suffering (Berlant 2011). This is the ‘quiet violence of dreams’: a denial ‘that turns weapons of the weak into weapons against them’ (Swartz et al. 2012, p. 32).

In this chapter, the complicated complicity of prisoners’ redemptive life stories in the reproduction of the pathologising gaze of post-apartheid prisons has been thrown into focus. As inmates contest and negotiate their identities in the pursuit of hope, they unwittingly produce stories that lend themselves to a wider ideology of betterment. More critical research that unpicks popular narratives and highlights those parts of prisoners’ life stories that are usually erased is urgently needed. If stories fail to challenge established beliefs or knowledge then they are, it has been said, likely to turn us ‘away from growth, from openness, to the narrow, to the familiar, to the ... closed’ (Hagberg 2010 quoted in Colvin 2015, p. 221). Negotiating positive change in South Africa’s criminal justice system and returning to the ANC’s original vision of decarceration will require telling stories that cast light on the complexities and difficulties of life for many of postapartheid South Africa’s prisoners.


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  • [1] In 1992, the ANC said that ‘our problems are not being solved by large scale imprisonment’,and that ‘however much one condemns [criminal] deeds, the state response should showcompassion for the perpetrator’ (1992 in Super 2013, p. 107). A desire to curtail the state’suse of the prison as a mechanism for administering criminal justice can be traced back to1955, when the ANC and their allies adopted the Freedom Charter, a statement of collectivepolitical purpose in the fight against apartheid. It declares that, ‘Imprisonment shall be onlyfor serious crimes against the people, and shall aim at re-education, not vengeance’, marking adeparture from the violent and punitive uses of the prison by the apartheid government (1955in Minogue and Molloy 1974, p. 285).
  • [2] The incompatibility of South Africa’s democratic project and the rising use of the prison islaid out in Gillespie (2008).
  • [3] In ‘Punishment and deterrence: don’t expect prisons to lower crime rates’, Lukas Muntingh(2008) argues that prisons serve political and economic, rather than rehabilitative, functions.While there is little accurate statistical data on recidivism, it is estimated that between 80% and90% of criminals are repeat offenders. See Dissel (2008).
  • [4] Boksburg Correctional Facility has approximately 4,149 prisoners and one of the largest juvenile facilities in South Africa.
  • [5] Some of the names in this article have been changed according to informants’ requests forconfidentiality.
  • [6] Lois Presser (2016, p. 188) has also noted that prisoners become subject to reductive labelling; they are denied their stories, she argues, and are constructed by society as unidimensional‘criminals’.
  • [7] The 26s gang is one of South Africa’s ‘Numbers gangs’. Gangs are said to control most ofSouth Africa’s prisons, but operate mainly in the Western Cape. These gangs have their owninternal structures of power, symbols and codes, language, and rankings. See Gear and Linde-gaard (2015).
  • [8] In Boksburg, as in most South African prisons, joining a gang means being pulled into apowerful, complex, and violent structure that offers a measure of security' and belonging. SeeLotter (1988).
  • [9] Leeuwkop is a large prison complex in Johannesburg North that holds prisoners of all categories. It is a relatively ‘soft’ prison with less gang violence than other prisons.
  • [10] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a salient example of this pervasive South African discourse.
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