What I learned in Youth Prison

As part of my internship in Cape Town I have been getting involved with Street Law, a pro bono project within the UWC (University of the Western Cape) Law Faculty. Read for my experience at a Youth Detention Centre.

As part of my internship in Cape Town I have been getting involved with Street Law, a pro bono project within the UWC (University of the Western Cape) Law Faculty. It’s entirely student-led and I went with the students to a male Youth Detention Centre (it’s called a “Secure Care Centre”). The Street Law team attend every week and the aim is to equip the boys with knowledge and tools to hopefully avoid returning to the detention centre (or adult prison) in the future. 

One of the most dangerous countries in the world

In the first week I attended we did a session on bullying. It was a lecture-style session with some questions and answers but what really stuck with me was the session we had this week on drug abuse. We chose that topic following the suggestions of the boys after the session on bullying. Some context that may be helpful here is that South Africa is a country with an extremely high crime rate: data from SAPS (South African Police Service) taken from 2017-18 showed that there were 601, 366 reported offences against the person in that period including murder, sexual offences, attempted murder, GBH assault, common assault and robbery and aggravated robbery. Youth crime and violence is endemic within many South African communities and this goes hand in hand with drug abuse. So for the majority of the boys at the Detention Centre, drugs were a familiar part of their lives and the reason why they had requested the topic. 

Learning is a two-way process

The session this week was formatted differently: two volunteers sat at a table of around seven to eight boys and we had candid conversations about drugs and their negative effects. What I really enjoyed about this session was that it was a genuine conversation. They learned from us and we learned from them. They told us about how each one of them had taken drugs and knew people who abused drugs. We talked about the physical and mental effects of drug abuse and they were very aware of the different consequences. The conversation then moved on to them telling us about what their realities are like and also the offences that had led them to be detained. Many of them had committed violent offences such as shootings and murders. 

The complex nature of criminal gangs

They told me in detail about how gangsterism worked in real life and showed me the tattoos that they had which symbolised their gangs. Being part of a gang, they told me, was often the difference between being safe and alive and being vulnerable and dead. This was made clear when I asked one 17 year old who was due to move up to adult prison after his 18th birthday how he felt about moving up. He was very calm about it and said he’ll be fine because of the gang he is part of. Although prisons in South Africa are notoriously dangerous, his affiliation meant that he wouldn’t be touched. There were other reasons they joined gangs. Some told me about how gang members target boys without father figures and groom them into joining. This reminded me of my research into County Lines in the UK and the gangs that target children without a stable home life to join them. 

Reflecting on youth violence in the UK

I told them about the work I was doing looking at youth violence in the UK and after a short Q&A about London and what it is like living there, they gave me their views on how to divert children from gang activity. The main one was education and enrichment. They said that had they been able to go to school somewhere far away where they weren’t known and could do things like focus on sport or music their lives could have turned out differently. This tied into money because when I asked them what they would do if money wasn’t an issue they all said they would move as far away from Cape Town as possible and buy houses for themselves and their mothers. 

My two key takeaways

There were two huge takeaways I had from the session this week. Firstly, children who are involved with gang activity and serious youth violence are very aware of the fact that they were vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. One boy had a tattoo that said “I BROKE MY MOTHER’S HEART TO IMPRESS MY FRIENDS”. He had vowed to change his life once released but recognised how difficult this would be given the pressures around him to stay within the violent criminal associations that control his community. 

Secondly, we built such a good rapport with these boys that it reminded me that I initially wanted to become a barrister. It’s my job to listen to people’s raw and unfiltered truth and communicate that to people who hold the power to tangibly change their life. Seeing how comfortable the boys were talking to us proved to me how important it is to listen to people when they tell their stories by showing that you are someone they can trust with their truth. I learned so many things about their lives, families, their regrets and most painful moments. I thanked them for sharing with me and told them how they had helped me understand how to represent kids like them. 

Deciding on a specialism in Youth Violence

This experience has confirmed to me that no matter where my practice goes, I want to have a specialism in youth criminal justice – particularly children who have been involved with gangs and serious violence. I also want to spend more time talking to children who have been detained for serious offences to better understand how I can help them as an advocate – not only in court but also in my legal scholarship . 

Returning for the last time

I’ll be returning to the Detention Centre next week for the last time and I’m looking forward to talking to the boys again. Hopefully it goes as well as this week.

Until next time, 

Ps, Don’t forget to watch the BATB GDL and BPTC VLOG with LawCareers.Net on Youtube! Link here: (http://bit.ly/BATBYT) and follow BATB on Twitter! (@batthebar)

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