Glimpse into ‘genius’ jail

2016-11-15 10:45
One of the photos that was recently exhibited at Pollsmoor prison. The exhibition by a local photographer captured moments when prisoners were doing yoga.

One of the photos that was recently exhibited at Pollsmoor prison. The exhibition by a local photographer captured moments when prisoners were doing yoga. (Lee-ann Olwage)

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A “well-received” exhibition to give people a glimpse into the notorious Pollsmoor prison has come to an end.

The exhibition, showing photos of prisoners doing yoga, was put together by Lee-Ann Olwage, a False Bay resident who is a photographer for social change.

For years she had wanted to peak over the high walls of the prison. It took a year before she was granted access to shoot in Pollsmoor and another six months until she held the exhibition.

SevaUnite, a non-profit organisation based in Claremont, takes yoga to the prisoners in Tokai for an hour a day. SevaUnite’s Prison Freedom Project teaches yoga and mindfulness in prisons to alleviate suffering and reduce crime.

“The exhibition was well received by members of the public. It was the first of its kind,” says Pollsmoor spokesperson Lewies Davids.

At the moment 80 prisoners at Pollsmoor are doing the yoga lessons.

Davids says the corrections department believes rehabilitation is a societal responsibility and they are eager to collaborate with NGOs and faith-based organisations.

“It’s good for rehabilitation. Yoga works. Teaching it to prisoners is genius. It reduces stress, aggression and negativity and promotes good health and wellbeing.

“Speaking to some regular participants, the inmates have described their sessions as ‘powerful’ and essential to improving their breathing styles and sleep patterns. They say yoga has also helped them to focus and find themselves and helps with conflict resolution.

Olwage says she has always been fascinated by the prison system.

“It always bothered me that you would punish someone for something they did wrong, lock them up for several years and then release them with no real offender rehabilitation taking place. That is not a solution and overcrowded prisons all over the world are a sign that we are failing at this. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We need a new approach to offender rehabilitation.

“When I heard about teaching yoga to prisoners I knew that this was a brilliant solution to an ever growing problem. I knew it had the potential to really rehabilitate an inmate but what I witnessed in Pollsmoor blew me away.”

The aim of her work at the prison is to raise awareness about the work SevaUnite does with the Prison Freedom project. This was Olwage’s first exhibition.

“The aim of the exhibition was to create an event that focuses on social issues and social awareness and responsibility.

“When I deal with people in life, and especially when I photograph them, I want them to see themselves through my eyes.”

“When I deal with people in life, and especially when I photograph them, I want them to see themselves through my eyes. I don’t see a criminal or a prisoner, but instead I see a human being. I see the good in all people and the way I work with them allows them to see that in themselves.

“You will see in my photographs that you are not looking at hardened criminals but at human beings. We are all the same and we share the same hopes and dreams.

“It is our social responsibility as a society to help those who have stumbled and lost their way and not just punish them for what they did wrong, but to pick them up and help them. We are all on this journey called life together.

“So I want to change people’s perceptions so that they may look at these prisoners as human beings and not as criminals. So a big part of it is to break down boundaries,” says Olwage.
She says she was never afraid to be in one of the most notorious prisons.

“It was always quite ironic that I was trying to get into a place where everyone was trying to get out of. Because I treated them as human beings and not as criminals or prisoners the dynamic between us immediately changed.”

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