Phoenix Zululand:


Restorative Justice Programme

Archive for the ‘Family Conferences’ 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

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

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.


An unusually large Family Conference

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Nonceba, Nathi and their team facilitated an unusually large Family Conference on Saturday 28th January at a rural prison. The conference was notable for the way older women, mostly mums, took a leading role in deepening the expressive potential and honesty of the exchanges between their families an their imprisoned men. What was also exceptional at this Conference was the way so many of the participants reflected on the strong sense of communiity that had developed so very quickly between all the families attending the Conference. Out of this came repeated expressions of familial responsibilty for the care and socal reintegration after prison. The reproving comments were there aplenty, as always. But so too were expressions of love and unconditional regard for the imprisoned men; the Conference heightened these kinds of statements.

The last part of all Phoenix Family Conferences is for all to assemble for a group photograph. Photography is an essential part of Family Conferencing, firstly because it memorializes and celebrates a tumultuous event in the lives of the families, but also stands witness to the undertakings from all sides with respect to the future, especially in the prison context which can be so damaging to the ordinary workings of memory.


Imagine you are a prisoner, part of a Phoenix group, and for some weeks you have reflected on the meaning of your life in "Starting with Us", and then prepared for a Family Conference in the programme "Conversations in Families". How will you speak to members of families, some of whom you have not seen for a long time? What signs can you give them of your vulnerability and of your urgent need for help in getting back on your feet after prison? These kinds of questions will be daunting. However, in one small way, you can show your keen expectation of the Family Conference by painstakingly laundering and pressing your prison uniform, and shining your shoes - the picture is poignant in that it shows how the range of options available to prisoners to express themselves materially is severely limited.


Some members of the Phoenix Facilitator team are caught in a moment of repose during the Family Conference. Both the preparatory programmes and the Conferences are very demanding emotionally. Faciltiators are constantly alert to the need for the right kind of medation at any one moment when prisoners get together with their families. In the photograph are Ntombi, Thembalethu, Sebenzile, Lamo and Father Meshack. The Phoenix team can accomplish a great deal in the 4-5 hours available to them during Family Conferences: over the months and years, large numbers of people have left these conferences with a feeling that their mutual life-crises have been elevated to both importance and manageability, and the feeling that they "have been heard" - they have been lifted from the desolation of social anonymity. Thus the stigma and humilation of having someone in prison can become an ennobling human drama. The Phoenix team has built up a repertoire of considerable skills.




Lamo Jama’s inventive work with men in prison

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Lamo has worked with men in prison over a number of years. She has an extraordinary ability to win their trust and therefore to enable them to grapple with the challenges they will have in returning to their families.

She has also established herself as a trusted mediator between prisoners and their families. Lamo often speaks about her own experience of being a prisoner, experience which helps her illuminate the difficulties faced by others. She is one of several Phoenix star Facilitators.

This week, Lamo has been using role-plays to enable her prison groups to anticipate the reactions of families and friends when they return home after prison.

Three men play various roles of members of a family as they improvise an imagined scene upon homecoming. A valuable aspect of this exercise is that participants learn about each other's families, and they are thus able too lend each other insights about how to manage the negative perceptions so many have to confront .


Lamo in discussion with her prison group before they go to work on their improvised and dramatised situations about problems they imagine to await them when they return home. The working space available in prisons is always limited. Lamo has triumphed over such physical limitations.


Lamo herself participating in a dance session with American students and women prisoners, a session which she helped to facilitate.

At the heart of Phoenix programmes is “Starting with Us”

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Baba Meshack Vilakazi conducts a “Starting with Us” session at a Zululand prison.


This programme of Phoenix works hard at enabling serving prisoners to explore matters of self-revelation and sincerity. It also allows Facilitators to gain insight into the travail and anguish that prisoners may face in their home and community contexts.


Straddling the prisons of Zululand

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Prisons of Zululand

A moment of intense emotion during a Family Conference

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Family Conferences require a huge amount of emotional energy from Phoenix team members to help families understand the process they go through.

An emitonally dramatic moment during a Family Conference


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