South African School kids protesting during Apartheid

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Our Escape to the cinema to see – Escape from Pretoria.

Mail & Guardian, South African newspaper during apartheid years

July 12. Last night we went to the cinema. It felt like a special treat; I cannot recall the last time. And it was an occasion, more than we had realised. Newly introduced rules in our state allow a larger audience. Our tickets had to be bought online, with specific seats allocated such that there were empty seats either side of us. Sanitizer bottles had been placed at the entrance. The Palace Nova cinemas made an event of last night: they premiered two locally produced films and invited our Premier, Steven Marshall, and our Adelaide Mayor. We listened to speeches, an interview with one of the actors and a videoed message from Francis Annan, the director.

The film was Escape from Pretoria, filmed in our historic Adelaide Gaol, in local streets (converted to ‘Cape Town’) and briefly in the countryside of South Australia. It is based on real events that took place in 1978-9 in apartheid South Africa. The star actor is the bespectacled Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. Daniel portrayed Tim Jenkins and most of the film takes place in the gaol.

Tim is the cousin of a good friend of mine and we met him during the filming of Escape from Pretoria and he showed us a copy of the wooden keys that he made in the prison workshop and, with two other prisoners, used to escape the high security prison in Pretoria. It is a fascinating story; unfortunately, Tim’s eponymous book is unavailable but the film is out there.

You can watch Tim Jenkins talking about his work for the ANC in this YouTube program: The Vula Connection. One of the speakers is Ronnie Kasrils, whom South Africans will recognise. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29vrvKsKXPI

Back to the film. The events portrayed took place 42 years ago when it seemed apartheid would be impossible to dislodge. After meeting with the ANC in London, Tim and his friend, Stephen Lee, set about making small contraptions, called parcel bombs, (they never hurt anyone) that distributed leaflets in various Cape Town and Johannesburg streets. The leaflets promoted the ideas of the then-banned ANC. The two men continued this activism for two years before their arrest. They were found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 12 and 8 years respectively.

Although you know from the title that they suceeded in escaping, the film is an impressive display of determination and ingenuity. To make the wooden keys from observation of the keyholes and the guard’s keyrings, from trial and error while under surveillance, is beyond impressive. Eventually, over 18 months, they made keys for every gate, storage cupboard and locker they could find. There were 10 doors between them and freedom and they had to negotiate past the night-time guard.

I found it interesting to see how they portrayed Tim Jenkin’s cell. Totally bare at first, but as time went on it became a personalised space: drawings, books, family photos.

There were two little jarring aspects to the movie. Firstly, the South African accent is hard to copy unless you are a Trevor Noah, and some attempts were curiously odd. Secondly, Pretoria is famous for its jacaranda trees, so is Adelaide. There was a lack of sense of place in the film, but maybe that is only seen by an ex-South African.

It was a treat to see a movie on the big screen. A treat to forget about Covid-19 threatening the world outside. Escape from Pretoria is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking film about a time when we lived in South Africa: about a society dominated by a racist regime, about fortitude in the face of oppression. How easy it is for a society to travel down that same racist path and how few are brave enough to stand up against it. That we should never forget.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Bedtime stories.



HMP Bronzefield -women’s prison

June 16. There are three ways of identifying the impact of the coronavirus:

  • Pre-existing problems exposed by the pandemic
  • Pre-existing problems exacerbated by the pandemic
  • Pre-existing problems which the response to the pandemic failed to fix

In the UK, the prison system sits under all three headings.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons has just published a report on three women’s prisons, Bronzefield (the largest purpose-built women’s prison in Europe), Eastwood Park and Foston Hall.* It focusses on actions being taken to protect the prisoners from infection.  “We found”, reported the inspector, “that self-harm had increased from the high levels seen prior to the restrictions being implemented.”

In these prisons, and across the system, levels of self-harm, up to and including suicide, were already at an unacceptable level, and would have remained so without the impact of coronavirus.

As I discussed in my diary entry a fortnight ago, the key failure of the Ministry of Justice was not implementing a plan to reduce the size of the prison population, particularly those serving short sentences which would have included many women.  This is confirmed by the new report:

The two early release schemes in operation had been largely ineffective in reducing the population. Despite the process taking up significant amounts of management time, only six prisoners had been released. This was a failure of national planning.”

Instead the women prisoners were subject to a host of restrictions to protect them from the virus.  They were kept in their cells for all but an hour in two of the prisons and half an hour in a third.  Face-to-face education ceased, although it was noted that “some limited one-to-one teaching support was given at cell doors.” Schoolteachers and university lecturers don’t know what they are worrying about. All family visits were suspended, which “had a particularly acute impact within the women’s estate.”

Above all, in the case of prisoners “with very high levels of need”, who had been “previously receiving significant structured support from a range of agencies”, the services “had stopped or been drastically curtailed at all three sites, creating a risk that these prisoners’ welfare could seriously deteriorate.”   The consequence was felt in all three prisons: “Self-harm had risen since the start of the restrictions at Bronzefield and Foston Hall. The number of incidents was beginning to reduce at Foston Hall in May but remained above the level seen before the restricted regime was implemented.”

The report paints a picture of staff doing their best in impossible circumstances, working around obstacles as best they could, and in some cases finding new ways of alleviating the stress on prisoners.  The inmates had phones which they could use in limited circumstances.  At one of the prisons these were employed to help compensate for the absence of family visits.

“At Eastwood Park”, the inspector reported, “managers had established a scheme where prisoners could read a bedtime story to their children each evening.”

Makes you weep.

* Report on short scrutiny visits to Prisons holding women by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (19 May 2020)