Helping criminals heal

2009-01-28 00:00

Kairos Prison Ministry is having an open day at All Saints United Church, Athlone, this Saturday from 8 am until noon.

Kairos presents courses at the Pietermaritzburg prison twice a year. “We target the more criminal inmates and try to change them,” says Mervin Smart, the leader of the Pietermaritzburg branch. “They are the leaders, the leaders in the crime community. Change them and then you can change others in that community.”

Kairos grew out of the Walk to Emmaus spiritual renewal programme designed to strengthen the church through the development of Christian leaders. “We realised the value you get in changing people’s lives is tremendous,” says Smart. “We then adapted the programme to prisoners.”

Prisoners attend a four-day Kairos course. “We look at building social skills, how to make decisions and care for other people.”

The course, built around Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, addresses issues of health, safety, belonging and self-esteem. “Take care of people’s immediate needs and you allow them to open up on a spiritual level,” says Smart.

Candidates for the course are selected by Correctional Services unit managers at the prison. “They select from the problem gangs,” says Smart. “And they are invited to come along, they are not forced to attend.”

Separate facilities are set up within the prison for those attending the course. “That way it takes place in a non-threatening environment and at the end of the day they don’t go back to the general prison population. If they go back, you immediately lose the safety aspect of Maslow’s hierarchy.”

After a series of introductory talks two prisoners are assigned to one Kairos team member. “We aim to get prisoners to share with each other,” says Smart. “We show them that there are alternatives to violence, that instead of reacting violently, you can stop and think before reacting.”

After the initial four-day course, Kairos volunteers then follow up by visiting the prisoners on a monthly basis.

Kairos is non-denominational and lay-driven, according to Smart. “Our volunteers are mature Christians, often they are what are called ‘wounded healers’ — people who have experienced murder, hijackings and rape, who have been on the receiving end. For criminals to be helped by someone who has been hurt makes them question their own lives.”

“We give with agape love — giving even when rejected. That is the true teaching of Christian love, to give even when rejected. And it lets the guys realise there is another way of living, not just the gang way, not the reactive way.”

“The aim is to get hope into their lives again,” says Smart. “And we address their situation both inside and outside prison and give their families support as well.”

“Our motto is ‘Listen, Listen, Love, Love,’” says Smart. “We don’t go in with a Bible, we are not Bible-bashers.” However, spirituality is an important aspect of the Kairos ministry. “By the fourth day we investigate spirituality, but we are opposed to evangelising. There is no pressure on them, but you find that after the third or fourth time you visit them in prison, they ask: ‘How do I become a Christian?’ So conversion is part of it.”

Smart says the Kairos programme is effective. “Seventy percent of criminals end up returning to jail, but with those who have done the programme that percentage is reduced to 30%.”

The programme has been running at the Pietermaritzburg prison for two and a half years now. Correctional services has requested the programme be extended to Westville, Ncome and Kokstad prisons. So, the Kairos Prison Ministry is looking for more volunteers, hence the open day this Saturday.

• For more information, phone Mervin Smart at 083 461 0733 or visit

• Stephen Coan can be contacted at

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