On Robben Island and Forgiveness: A Visit To One of Apartheid South Africa’s Most Notorious Prisons

My name is Nancy Umana-Melendez, a college senior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a support associate at American Prison Data Systems. For the past four years, I have been studying Criminology with a minor in Psychology, but it was just last year that I became highly interested in mass incarceration and education in prisons. This all came from being involved in the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program, at John Jay College through the Prison Reentry Institute.

The program incorporates a learning exchange between John Jay students and the incarcerated men at Otisville Correctional Facility. I was part of last year’s cohort. Each month my classmates and I would get on a van and drive two hours to Otisville Correctional Facility to learn alongside the inside students (incarcerated individuals), where classes were taught by CUNY professors with all different kinds of backgrounds, skills, and interests.

The classes never disappointed. There are no other college courses like them. Within the learning exchanges there is a craving and passion for academia like nothing I’ve experienced before. The energy, the intelligence from the incarcerated people is refreshing and was much needed in my second to last year at John Jay.

You can go to the most prestigious, highly ranked college in the nation, I promise you, the learning atmosphere at Otisville through the P2CP wouldn’t even come close. Professors leave the facility wishing they taught in prison instead of on the outside. Being in this program, I learned how hard it is for someone to get an education and the risks they face because they haven’t had the chances that we have. I learned that there are many different roads that led to mass incarceration, roads that have been paved by our very own ignorance. I learned that there are laws that target minorities and shatter whole communities and in return, create and reinforce the gap between the privileged and not so privileged. I learned that the criminal justice system, the police, the courts, the jails, the prison and probation has not only added to mass incarceration but is used as a tool to help keep the cycle oppression in check.

As I neared the end of the program my professor and founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline, Baz Dreisinger announced that she would be hosting a study abroad program to South Africa during the Winter 2017 Semester incorporating Prison Reentry Work. Her main goal was to plant the seeds of starting the Prison-to-College Program in South Africa. I made it my top priority to get in.

I’m proud to say I was accepted, and on our fourth day in South Africa I couldn’t believe I was about to step onto Robben Island, which was used for isolation of political prisoners during the apartheid.

I expected Rikers Island, it was very much like it but empty, a ghost facility. Robben Island like Rikers Island in NYC was and still is its own community, isolated from the rest. During the apartheid, most of Robben Island was built by the prisoners themselves. They built the churches, the schools and the homes that housed the prison staff. As we arrived it was evident that there was no escape. The island was surrounded by nothing but water, from afar you could see Table Mountain, if it wasn’t too foggy. As we arrived, we were greeted by a mural that read, “FREEDOM CANNOT BE MANACLED!” I thought it was ironic and quite humorous for a place like this.

Freedom Cannot Be Manacled // photo by Nancy Umana

Freedom Cannot Be Manacled // photo by Nancy Umana

As we arrived,  a tall black man, who had been incarcerated for many years on this island during the apartheid, was our tour guide. He led us towards the entrance that read “Welcome Robbeneiland We Serve with Pride,” half in English, half in Afrikaans. I couldn’t imagine working as a guide on the very island that I had been dehumanized on.  I tried to make sense of it, then I remembered Nelson Mandela. Mandela had preached, forgiveness and reconciliation to the people of South Africa after his release.  I asked myself, has this man forgiven? Does telling his story to tourists, some who knew nothing about the struggles of his time, sit well with him?  Does he resent this place and the memories it holds of his past?

As everyone rushed ahead of me to listen to the man, I lagged on purpose. I wanted to be in the moment, take in the atmosphere, take pictures, and capture an image of the past in my mind. He walked us towards the maximum-security prison. The building looked well-kept and recently built. Later I would find out that this building was built by the prisoners themselves in the 1960s.  We walked through the corridors, past the warden’s office, armory, reception office and prison court. In the prison court prisoners were given their prison number, identity documents and uniform. In this room, they also were charged with breaking prison regulations, tried and sentenced to various forms of punishment.

We then passed the study office. To study, in the office or elsewhere, was a privilege that few political prisoners were granted. Our guide told us that many would be punished if caught studying.  Despite that threat, many political prisoners – who were lawyers, writers, and activists – secretly taught their fellow prisoners who didn’t have an education.  Our guide showed us the censor’s office, where all the mail to and from prisoners was censored. Prisoners would receive letters with holes cut out of them, making them virtually impossible to read and understand. As the tour continued, we reached what looked like a recreation area, but it was far from it. This was the outside area where prisoners were forced to work all day.

Outside Work Yard // photo by Nancy Umana

Yard at Robben Island // photo by Nancy Umana

Our tour guide pointed to Nelson Mandela’s garden , where Mandela had written his book Long Walk to Freedom, and hidden it between writing sessions. I had my copy of the book in my backpack and didn’t realize until I had left Robben Island.

Nelson Mandela's Garden // photo by Nancy Umana

Nelson Mandela’s Garden // photo by Nancy Umana

We headed back inside towards the housing areas, each cell had a straw sheet on the floor and no lavatory. The guide said they would use bins and empty them every morning. I looked down the long corridor and imaged it full, dark, cold with many black faces looking at us.

Nelson Mandela's Cell // photo by Nancy Umana

Nelson Mandela’s Cell // photo by Nancy Umana

The guide then pointed out Nelson Mandala’s cell. I pictured him inside of it, just thinking and writing, as humble as could be. What went on between those four walls?  He knew he would one day be released. In that time, Nelson Mandela prepared and dreamed of a free South Africa. A South Africa, where his people would be free to vote, would be free to educate themselves, would be free of the white oppressor, would be free to be a black or coloured African. As everyone took pictures of Nelson Mandela’s cell, I took the time to ask our tour guide what his crime was for being incarcerated. He stated he was charged with terrorism. He was political prisoner and was only fighting for his freedom and was deemed as a terrorist again his own home country. I was surprised by apartheid’s definition of terrorism. As an American, I think of terrorism as another concept .

As we left, the wind picked up a bit, and I thought about the prisoners who faced these same winds. They didn’t get blankets, only a thin sheet. They slept on the floor, on an island surrounded by water, the wind and the ocean breeze as their backyard. The wind was yet another obstacle that made surviving on the island difficult.

Soon we left the prison and headed towards a bus with a slogan, “DRIVEN BY FREEDOM.” It was almost as if freedom was being promoted in a sense. Our guide on the bus was black, he apologized for his English, and would say “Thank You” after every sentence. The stories he told the group were unbelievable!

He told us Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress, was incarcerated on the island too. He was deemed so politically dangerous and influential that he was housed away from everyone else, on the other side of the island, completely alone in his unit, essentially in solitary confinement. He wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone including his own guards or he was subject to a beating.

Prisoners were only allowed 30 minute visits from family members and no conversations about the news or government were allowed. If I found myself in this situation, I wouldn’t want my family to come see me at all. A person’s family would have to travel for hours and hours, just to have 30 minutes with a loved one, where your conversations were limited and no personal contact was allowed, no hugs, no hand touching, nothing.

As he told these stories, I questioned the whole concept of forgiveness. I did not have these experiences, I was not part of the apartheid, I was not exposed to this. It wasn’t me who was buried in the ground and whose face was kicked in by officers for retaliating.

It wasn’t me who was hammering at rocks all day in the beaming sun. It wasn’t me who wasn’t allowed human contact. It wasn’t me who wasn’t allowed education. It wasn’t my letters that were torn into pieces. It wasn’t my family who suffered because I was in prison. This wasn’t my struggle, yet I still could not bring myself to understand how one could possibly begin to forgive and reconcile with one another for that kind of pain. I would not want to forgive; I would want to fight.

FierceAdvocates_NancyNancy Umana-Melendez joined APDS as a Junior Support Associate in September of 2016, after interning for the NYC Department of Correction. She has also interned for U.S Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Nancy is a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and will graduate in May 2017 with Bachelors in Criminology and a minor in Psychology. 

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