Phoenix Zululand:


Restorative Justice Programme

Archive for the ‘Programme updates’ Category

Family Conferences are essentially public occasions

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Because Family Conferences involve many people from disparate families, most often not known to each other before coming together on these occasions, they have amazing poignancy, and often elicit bewildering emotions. They give the participants experience in talking to others, especially strangers, about the obloquy they have felt in having one of their members in prison.

A large Family Conference

A large Family Conference

Lucia Trimbur from CUNY visited Phoenix in August 2013

Thursday, August 15th, 2013
Lucia visited a number of sites in and around Eshowe including the Dhlinza Forest Boardwalk

Lucia visited a number of sites in and around Eshowe including the Dhlinza Forest Boardwalk

Lucia participated fully in an extraordinarily intense programme during a visit to a Zululand prison. August 2013

Lucia participated fully in an extraordinarily intense programme during a visit to a Zululand prison. August 2013

A frequently experienced phenomenon in Phoenix work is the enduring and pervasive quality of the trust that Phoenix facilitators are able to engender; this makes it possible for visitors to join prison groups in a very transitory way — provided that they are with the Phoenix team — and yet be able to to rely of the trust that has been hitherto established. This is possibly testimony to one of the most important educational and developmental processes we see happening in prisons. It is never easy for prisoners to trust others, let alone comparative strangers. The social conditions from which most come, and their experience of the criminal justice system, makes their vulnerability an important factor with which we have to work as a living reality.



Nonceba and some members of her team attend a Colloqium at the Constitutional Court

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Sasha Gear, Programme Director of Just Detention, and Nonceba Lushaba in conversation at the Colloquium


The Wits Justice Project hosted a colloquium entitled “It Could be You” on 17th May at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg. The presenters all reflected on the experience of imprisonment from their different perspectives.

Ancillary to the Colloquium is a superb exhibition of photographs (continuing) of ex-prisoners taken by David Goldblatt. The photographs were all taken at the scenes of the deeds that got them jailed and each is accompanied by a brief text describing the event to which the photograph refers. Behind Sasha and Nonceba in the picture above is a photograph of Bongani Sithole, for some years a musician Facilitator with Phoenix.

David Goldblatt in a presentation at the Colloquium described his project and what it meant to him.



An emotionally dramatic Family Conference

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Deputy Director Nathi Shandu and Father Meshack Vilakazi facilitated a wonderful Family Conference in a Zululand prison last week.

The group assembles, just before leaving the prison, leaving their men behind, yet hopeful that the future will be different and better.


Phoenix Facilitators are often left wondering about the qualities of reflexivity implicit in family life as revealed in the actions and statements during Family Conferences. Do people understand fully the motives they have in acting and behaving as they have? Yet the changes in thinking that happen during the conferences certainly are an indication that new understandings are reached, often with the implication that the blame, denunciation of and demands for contrition from serving prisoners are ameliorated. The causes of criminal offending often reach very deeply into the collective life of families over a long period, and so many people have come to understand this. Helping to lift some of the great load of culpability and shame is a vital part of Family Conferencing, though not to the exclusion of taking responsibility for actions on their lives by serving prisoners.


A very important lesson families take away with them from Family Conferences derives from impassioned pleas, variously expressed, that prisoners should not be forgotten by them. That is an abiding fear that almost all prisoners experience.


In some prisons, Phoenix Family Conferences occur in the heart of the prison, usually in the only space available. This prompts a large amount of varying interest from the surrounding cells. Here, in this picture, two men try to phone home during the conference for others, perhaps prompted into renewed feelings of loss by their exclusion from family life . Some spend hours watching and listening from their barred cell windows.


A non-paricipating prisoner watches a Phoenix Family Conference from a cell.

Inevitably, there are always some individuals at Family Conferences that valuably put  distinctive and unique stamps on the occasions. The Phoenix team never knows quite what to expect owing to the fact that they meet members of families for the first time at the conferences. They simply have to be so very alert to unfolding therapeatic opportunities as they emerge, and encourage these to be entrenched in memory for all those who attend the conferences.


A prisoner, unrelated to Gogo, gets a huge hug which said, in effect, "we are all part of this family gathered here today".




Family Conferences are happening continually

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Lamo Jama and Deuty Drector Nathi Shandu facilitated an extraordinarily original Family Conference last week.


Lamo – together with a Phoenix visiting artist, Annemarie Beukes – introduced the Conference by asking inmates to speak to the attending families about self-portraiture they had accomplished in the preceding weeks. It proved to be a wonderful way to get things going. Each man, as he spoke about his own artistic work, revealed things about his own past and the way he had come to think of himself, his vulnerabilities and the way he now sees unfolding opportunities, in the present and after parole. As several said, they had never tried to do anything artistic before, and this exercise served as a superb metaphor to help them understand the largest of all possible projects: the revision of their own lives in relation to their families.

It was very noticeable to Phoenix Facilitators how much members of families responded to an evidently new kind of emotional expression and way of speaking from their imprisoned members of their families. The value of this lies in our being able to show that prisoners are capable of extending ideas of what it is to find a way back to family and society after prison. It is far more that merely expressions of contrition – it goes into what it is for an ex-prisoner to be once more a creative contributor to the collective health of the communiity of family and friends.


Well done Lamo; we were all deeply moved.

The beginning of a a Family Conference: who am I?

A man speaks about how he thinks about himself as he explains his own self-portrait.

As usual, the families gathered for a group photograph after this emtional event during which we felt there had been palpable reconciliation between inmates and their families.

Families gather for a photograph before a few tears and sad goodbyes. But there was elation at the prospect of parole in the not too distant future.


As always at our Family Conferences, the Phoenix was there: a referential touchstone for all present:

Arise, once more, brightness in our lives.

[Refer to the next post.]

Nathi Shandu and Lamo Jama at the Family Conference

The Phoenix

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The Phoenix: a painting done by a long-term prisoner who was deeply inspired by his experience of the Programme. The painting is large, and is executed on A2 paper.


The name of the Programme has been unexpectedly and triumphantly apposite in the nine years that the organization has worked in Zululand’s prisons. The ancient  myth of the beautiful bird that immolates itself and then rises  from the ashes has been told again and again in the prison programmes, in a thousand different contexts. It has been thoroughly appropriated in the telling of so many life-stories. It has been drawn, painted, and modelled in clay. In Family Conferences, it has very often become the mythic template by which families mould their own specific narratives.

This widespread public resonance with the myth may have several explanations. The most intriguing suggests that this ancient story, alien in cultural provenance, is potent beyond its thematic relevance. The story “speaks” to people about the universality of their predicaments in falling foul of the local law, resulting in incarceration. In other words, it is the fact of the myth deriving from a different age and culture that gives it its local symbolic power: if you come to understand that the story of your messed-up life is foreshadowed by the criminal actions and pedicaments of others in different cultures down the ages, in a significant way the burden of culpability and guilt is ameliorated, and you can set your mind upon a putative resurrection from the ashes of your life.

Those who name their programmes of social action by reference to the local vernacular (in the laudable pursuit of being “relevant”) miss this vital point. The name of a social programme should, in our view, suggest the universal human connections within the social and individual problems with which we all try to grapple. To be imprisoned with a total loss of liberty  is a catastrophe for the human spirit, and this desolation should be connected to the unfolding human drama through all ages that prizes freedom above all other values.

For us, the Phoenix continues to be a wonderful symbol.



An iconic drawing is displayed at the Phoenix Gallery

Sunday, February 12th, 2012


Some of the Programme’s most forceful examples of prisoners struggling with their futures are astonishingly articulate in artistic terms about the hurdles lying ahead in the future. The task of rebuilding self-image under the immense force of social obloquy is brilliantly grasped in the following picture.

The "empty" prison cell

The sparseness of the cell reflects emotional desolation and the apparent impossibility of finding a creative way back to society after prison. The drawing’s most poignant thought occurs in the image in the mirror. The idea here was by no means fully formed in a verbally explicit way at the time of its frst display. It was when the drawing became a catalytic opportunity for discussion within the group that both artist and others started to grasp what had been drawn.  “Before you present yourself to the mirror”, said the artist in statements that came finally to be formed under the influence of the social commentary, “it has a predetermined idea of who you are, and you feel that you will be forever trapped in your own denigrating self-image”. “The mirror is society”, echoed the group, “ever present in your prison cell”. “There is nothing to look at that might help you to think differently”.

The ascription of a denigrating intention to a mirror on the wall is psychologically astute.

The gated door: the door made for me

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

The gated door: this drawing has been in the Gallery for a few years.

The drawing is elliptic and puzzling. The effect on the group in which it was produced was dynamic and resulted in new levels of self-expression amongst all the participants – this social effect of art within the prison group is the key to its stature, as in so many other examples of prison art. The drawing started to yield its burden of thought slowly in the prison group in which it was done, evoking considerable interpretative intensity along the way over several days. The artist himself, inarticulate in verbal, discursive ways and frequently prone to violence, seemed at times puzzled by his own drawings. A consensus in the discussion emerged in the group, to which the artist himself finally subscribed – this became its “meaning”:

“I come to a gated door. That door is made only for me and it is there to block my way forever and there is no hope. No hope – until I learn to call forth from within me all the power I have left. Then, as I stand before that iron gate, the cold iron starts to dissolve, and for the first time, I think I can walk through those bars. I hope I can take the first step into my resurrected life.”

 The metaphor of the force of personality making iron dissolve seems to offer a paradox: “we are the damned forever”, or “we could embody undiminished hope”. The intensity of the paradox provides the drawing with its interpretative energy. One can look at the picture and decide that the bars are newly forming to jail the subject in perpetuity, or, at another moment, one might decide they are beginning to dissolve. It is the conditionality of the latter perception, given the immensely disabling circumstances of imprisonment in the mental frameworks of people, that stands ready to cast a deep pall of pessimism over the way one might view this drawing.  Yet, in the art group in which if took its social meaning, the participants saw its key to lie in hope.


All the world’s a prison …………

Friday, February 10th, 2012

"Prison and home: across the street from each other"

[Click on the drawing to download a larger picture on your computer.]

Phoenix programmes, particularly those such as Conversations in Families” & “Family Conferencing”, are routinely showing that the ways in which prisoners think about their homes are critical to the making of an emotional and practical flexibility in all members of their families; this flexibility will make a considerable difference to whether or not  social reintegration happens after prison. It is often characteristic for prisoners to suffer severe amnesia about social identity with respect their own homes. Families also begin to forget that they have members incarcerated.

In this drawing, prison and home are shown to be similar institutions, merely “across the street from each other”. The idiom by which both are depicted is the same in each case. The perimeter fence of the prison and the forbidding enclosure of the home are homologous.

 How are we to tease out the thinking embedded in this drawing?

Perhaps it is this: after a while, prison ensures that the creative imagination collapses and the idea of liberty has no positive use in the minds of most prisoners. One is reminded of the creeping infection of the prison outlook, and perhaps of the kind of attitude exemplified in Hamlet:

What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of
Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Prison, my lord?

Denmark’s a prison.

Then is the world one.

A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

In prison, one learns that the world is a hostile place, and the prison fabricates in mental outlook a desolating emptiness, which assimilates to itself  ideas of home and communty.  This ensures for many that a return to prison on subsequent criminal charges is inevitable – “the world is nothing to you, and you are nothing to the world”. That is the reality of recidivism.

The idea of “rehabilitation” or ”corrections” has been universally shown to be one of societies’ grandest yet most absurd beliefs.


Amy Leo is working on the Phoenix Gallery

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Amy is modifyng the permanent display. New themes are being introduced, and new ways of displaying some extraordinary works of art.

We are choosing for display mainly art that has featured in papers and conference presentations.

Amy Leo at work in the Phoenix Gallery


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