CYC-Online 8 SEPTEMBER 1999 / BACK
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Inside-out: How technology links youth in prison with their 'peers' outside

Tony Weaver and Sarah Borchert

Youth Network Television (YNTV) is a landmark project using satellite and other technology to connect South African youth with each other and with their counterparts around the globe. YNTV's “Youth at Risk” programme takes cameras into two Western Cape prisons, and shows youth on the outside the grim reality of life on the inside.

Youth “under the age of 35" are responsible for more than half of reported crime in South Africa. In the Western Cape alone, 65 percent of all youth are classified as being disorganised: meaning they are not attached to any educational, social or cultural institution. At least 60 000 young people in the region owe allegiance to gangs. More than 2 600 youth, aged 7 to 17, are in jail across South Africa on charges ranging from petty theft to gang rape, hijacking and murder. An enduring image, seen repeatedly in the local media, is of a tattooed young person with a 'Doggy Dog' leering at the camera exuding evil.

But that is an aberration. For the most part young people in prison are there because of a complex set of circumstances as individual to each one of them as the individuality of their crime. Children are children and youth are youth, however heinous their crimes may be. That reality is finally being recognised, and innovative programmes are being put in place in prisons such as Worcester's Brandvlei and Cape Town's Pollsmoor to try to give juvenile offenders hope beyond the prison gates.

Too often prison is seen to be, and is, a stepping-stone to gang membership and a career of crime. It is also a place where youth are subjected to gang initiation, rape and assault.

One way of trying to ameliorate prison culture is by providing alternatives, such as those offered by CRED (Creative Education with Youth at Risk) a Cape Town based NGO working with young offenders through an innovative programme combining drama, music, art, writing and television to help them realise a more positive career path.

Linking internationally
CRED's B4 Project, named for the section where most of the juvenile male prisoners are held, aims to help channel prisoners' energies into cultural, social and intellectual development. Youth Network Television (YNTV), a project run under the auspices of Cape Town's Ubuntu TV and Film Productions and the Media Peace Centre, is consulting with warders, Correctional Services, CRED, the National Institute of Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO), the University of Cape Town's Criminology Department and other agencies to link prison youth and warders in Pollsmoor and Brandvlei with youth “outside”. In a six-part television series, YNTV links youth in South Africa with each other and with youth in Northern Ireland, Germany and the USA in dialogue about issues critical to their lives. The links are effected through a combination of satellite television, ISDN computer lines and compressed video.

"A grim, sordid and brutal reality"
YNTV's Youth at Risk project links youth and warders inside Pollsmoor and Brandvlei with youth in the townships “including a gangster and a reformed gangster “as well as a NICRO counsellor who runs diversion programmes for young offenders as alternatives to imprisonment. It is a unique initiative, tracking the lives of prisoners and warders simultaneously with the lives of youth outside who, so far at least, have evaded jail. Series Producer Liz Fish says: “Our aim is to not be judgmental about crime or criminality, but simply to set up a dialogue between those behind bars and those who could end up as prisoners. We are providing the two groups with a medium to set up a dialogue about their lives, and through this dialogue we hope to show the youth of South Africa that going to prison is not a glamorous, macho thing “it's a grim, sordid and brutal reality."

This feature: Reprinted from Track Two, a publication of the Centre from Conflict Resolution and the Media Peace Centre at the University of Cape Town.

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