Michael Gast is an American educationalist who visited South Africa recently and decided to do an exploratory study of children in prison and reform schools.
Education in the South African juvenile justice system entails much more than just the formal classes and curriculum offered to young offenders. Through my month-long research project I have come to see that looking at education necessarily means studying the whole process of imprisonment, institutionalisation and rehabilitation.
Realities of Transformation
While the post-apartheid era has brought many changes in legislation, implementation has been slow and painful.
Only in 2001 have many of the changes envisioned in the mid to late 1990s started to come about. Only now has the Western Cape Provincial Department of Education responded in action to the report of 1996 by the MC and begun the transformation of reform schools and schools of industry.
With such a legacy of oppression and knowing the current urgency of reforms, I sought to get a sense of the realities of educational opportunities for young male offenders, ranging in age from 1 5 to 21, in the Western Cape. In total I was able to visit three youth centres, as juvenile prisons are now named, and one youth care and special education centre, as the former reformatories are currently called.
Drakenstein Youth Centre
The first youth centre I visited was Drakenstein. It currently holds 521 young offenders and is the only youth centre with a maximum section in the Western Cape.
The curriculum at the school is centred around the Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) framework, part of the move to the Outcomes-based Education system. In general, Drakenstein had the least physical resources out of the three youth centres I visited. The classrooms were tiny and there are not enough textbooks for the students.
Some of the issues that arose during my stay at Drakenstein were the dwindling attendance at classes over the course of the semester and the related issue of lack of control over attendance, lack of study space, the overwhelming use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, and the inability by the prison to control against adult prisoners living in the juvenile section. It must be noted, nonetheless, that I found the quality of the teacher’s lesson plan and attention to the needs of the students to be high.
The next juvenile prison that I visited was Hawaqua Youth Centre. Unlike Drakenstein and Brandvlei, Hawaqua is completely dedicated to juvenile offenders and, while it was built to hold 250 inmates, it currently holds 390. The school at Hawaqua currently has eight teachers and an enrolment of approximately 1 20 students. The language of the majority of prisoners is, again, Afrikaans, but Hawaqua does offer Level 4 Xhosa and if it is a class of both Afrikaans and Xhosa-speakers then the medium of instruction is English. In addition, Hawaqua works extensively with NGOs in the area. It brings in programmes from NICRO, Media Works and CRED.
Another unique feature of Hawaqua is that they have school cells where all the students who take classes sleep in the same cell, according to ABET level. This seemed to be the closest thing to a solution to the problems of lack of study space thatI found at any of the facilities.
Brandvlei Youth Centre was the site of my longest visit and most extensive research. I was able to spend a week living at the facility. I sat in on classes, interviewed teachers and administrators and talked to the prisoners about their experiences and struggles with education in the prison.
The Youth Centre was originally built for 288 juveniles but now houses 340 “380 and there are rumours that the Department is going to transfer some of the overpopulation from Pollsmoor to Brandvlei, which would bring the total up to 542.
The majority of students take the ABET Level 1 “4 classes. Unlike the other facilities, the high school at Brandvlei does not offer the regular curriculum but runs an NSS and NIC course, which is equivalent to the regular high school course load but is focused on business and entrepreneurial skills. Besides a strictly academic curriculum the Youth Centre offers extensive training courses in its workshop classrooms. There is a metal shop, glass shop, woodworking class, leather works class, and basket-making and pottery. The Labour Department also runs courses, which include welding and panel-beating. Finally, sports are played twice a week in the afternoon, the Presidents Award Programme is offered, and there is a library and Basic Radio Programme.
One of the most surprising aspects of the school is that about 50 “60 medium-security prisoners are allowed to come to the Youth Centre every day for classes. This constitutes a violation of the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, which state: "In all detention centres juveniles should be separated from adults, unless they are members of the same family." The positive or negative effects of such interactions are hard to gauge. There are many positive aspects of this programme. The medium-security prisoners are gaining access to facilities and classes that are scarce and incredibly poorly funded in the average prison. The adult prisoners also offer a service to the school as six of them serve as study leaders for the teachers.
Nonetheless, there are still some negative aspects. While many of the adults are role models, some are not. The medium-security prisoners are a source of drugs for the juveniles as well as exposing them to a harsher, more serious gangster influence.
Two of the issues that struck me during my stay, and generally in all three visits to youth centres, were language and the business orientation of the curriculum. It is important to note that there were a significant group of students that were Xhosa-speaking and they had limited resources for learning in their mother tongue. In addition, the lack of history and literature classes, which have been replaced by the NSS and NSI curriculum for grades 10 “1 2, is disturbing. While more business and entrepreneurial classes might seem more pragmatic and useful with South Africa’s high unemployment rates, I would argue that it is important that education is not structured for the benefit of the market.
Eureka Youth Centre
My visit to Eureka Youth Centre, a centre for boys under 18, in order to gauge the changes by the Education Department to the reform schools system, confirmed for me many of the limitations of youth centres that fall under the Department of Correctional Services.
My understanding was that the initial plan for reform schools was to demolish the old reform schools and schools of industry, sell the properties and buy new land and facilities with that money. This turned out not to be feasible in the hectic transition period, so the present facilities were retained. They will be upgraded as money becomes available. Nonetheless, the new paradigm of development and restorative justice has officially begun, with the schools changing names and formally beginning the process of retraining.
On the staffing side of things, the new protocol calls for a residential education staff with professionals in various specialties such as psychology and social work emphasising the individual treatment and development of the young men and women in their care.
Of the 14 former reform schools and schools of industry, four are being shut down completely, four are being turned into Schools of Skills (schools for children with "limited capabilities"), two are being turned into Youth Care and Special Education Centres (for referrals in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act), three are being turned into Youth Care and Education Centres (for children referred by the Child Care Act of 1983), and one is becoming a Youth Care Centre for Boys with a separate Youth Care and Special Education Centre for Girls.
Eureka Youth Centre is the first former reform school in the Western Cape to officially make the full switch to a Youth Care and Special Education Centre for Boys. My impression was that the fact that the boys are able to have a much longer day of activities, family visits and an individually tailored development programme that takes into account many of their learning disabilities and previous educational history, is a positive development and addresses my concerns about juvenile prisons.
My visits to a variety of facilities have made it clear to me the vast limitations of correctional institutions for realising the goals of "promoting a child's reintegration and assuming a constructive role in society," as stated by the CRC. Even with the tremendous range of programmes and opportunities as well as dedicated staff at Brandvlei Youth Centre, the environment was one that cuts a young man off from his community and makes him more knowledgeable in the world of crime."
Article 40: The dynamics of youth justice and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in South Africa. Vol.3 No.3 September 2001