Movement Makers Explore Ending Prison Rape
On this final day of site visits in South Africa, one half of our group met with the Positive Women’s Network, while the other half of our group spent the day at Constitution Hill, the site of a former prison which has become home to the Constitutional Court. The Court happened to be in session on a contentious topic today and we were fortunate to witness a 2000-people strong protest for economic justice.
We spent most of the day in the Human Rights Conference room engaged in a rich and engaging discussion about ending prison rape with colleagues of Movement Makers Vivian Jojola and Lovisa Stannow, Just Detention International, from JDI South Africa, as well as some of their closest allies from the Justice Project, Lifeline, and OUT.
These groups are part of a loose federation with other allies who work together toward a common vision. It was inspiring to hear how they share information and resources and strategically play to their strengths, for example by having one group stay in the background to preserve access to crucial data about what is happening in the prisons and sharing that information with another group better positioned to take a more aggressive public stance. It was exciting to see such an effective networked approach to movement building for social change.
Over the course of the day they shared some of their strategies to end prison rape, from investigative reporting on rape and torture of incarcerated people, to advocacy to shut down private prisons that were abusing prisoners, to intense 6-day long trainings with prison guards to help them adopt a different way of being with incarcerated people, to digital story-telling designed to create public awareness about prison rape, connect folks to incarcerated people’s humanity and disrupt the belief that people in prison get what they deserve.
We were inspired by the group’s unyielding compassion in the face of brutal rape and torture by agents of the state and other prisoners under the state’s control. Rather than hold these actors as the enemy, these advocates looked for their humanity, recognized that they too have experienced trauma and are working in devastating conditions that degrade and dehumanize all involved. They sought to reconnect the guards to their own humanity and then to the humanity and dignity of incarcerated people. One advocate who trains guards on gender binaries and boxes, said “ If you want people to change, you have to be loving and compassionate. I can work with a rapist, because I see the human standing in front of me who is in pain and needs help to change.” Movement Maker Q Walcott likened that to the way that his group engages men and boys, meeting them where they in order to bring them somewhere else, with compassion and accountability. As one member of our group described it, this approach feels like reconciliation in action.
We were also given the opportunity to watch three videos of survivors of prison rape telling their stories as a part of JDI South Africa’s public awareness campaign. These survivor stories and narratives are critical to JDI’s work transforming the hearts, minds, and behavior of the guards. After watching the heart-wrenching videos, we heard from one of the survivors himself about what his healing journey has been like and how it has led him to find his purpose as an advocate to end prison rape.
It was an extremely powerful experience and an honor to spend the day with this survivor. By the end of the afternoon (which went on to include spirited discussions about ending mass incarceration in the US, the school to prison pipeline, how prison is an extension of Apartheid in South Africa and Slavery in the US and more…) he shared that after participating in the day’s discussion, he felt ready to step even more fully into leadership on ending prison rape.
At the end of this long and engaging day, our group had the honor of touring the former prison which held political prisoners like Albertina Sisulu, Barbara Hogan, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as folks whose violations were nothing more than being on the streets without a pass or stealing food because they were hungry. The tour of the cells and description of wretched conditions brought the day into even sharper focus and reinforced the urgency of ending prison rape and mass incarceration.
This international learning exchange was planned in conjunction with our esteemed partners at International Development Exchange (IDEX).