It is a special day in Zonderwater Maximum Security Prison. When the Peace Education Program (PEP) volunteers arrive at the gates, the security guard tells them they will probably have no students attending today. Why not? Because the Moroka Swallows, one of South Africa’s premier football teams, are visiting, and the inmates are watching them playing on the field.
So you can imagine the volunteers' surprise when they got to class and found nearly all of the PEP students eagerly waiting for the session to begin.
Something remarkable is happening in the tiny town of Cullinan, near Pretoria, South Africa. Inmates in Zonderwater Prison have transformed their lives and are helping other inmates transform theirs.
For the past four years a team of volunteers has been presenting the PEP to groups of inmates. Some are serving long-term sentences and some short. A total of 550 inmates have completed PEP courses.
Muziwenduda, who has just completed the most recent course, says: “I am grateful for the lessons learnt from Prem Rawat. I now have to stop thinking I can find peace in conferences, world bodies, governments, but must look deep inside of me everyday to find it. All I need to do now is to stay at the ‘Peace Fountain’ and experience the beauty of fulfillment.”
Jabu, another recent graduate, says: “When Prem Rawat was talking about contentment, forgiveness and patience, I felt very challenged. I used to be impatient, unforgiving and not satisfied with my life – not even able to say thanks for the breath of life. Prem Rawat’s messages have changed my life. I feel good and fulfilled; life is now appreciated and enjoyable for me.”
Several of the graduates from previous courses are now helping to run the sessions. Currently five of them work together to fetch the TVs from the locked cupboards, set them up in the meeting room, provide lists of who plans to attend each course, and keep track of attendees. They also make sure attendees can get from their locked cells to the meeting room, set up the refreshments, and serve them.
Dumisane appreciates his role: “It has been a pleasure for me working with the facilitators and helping the inmates go through all the courses. It has helped me to be competent when dealing with different characters of inmates.”
Benjamin has been helping with the PEP for many years. “Working with our facilitators has given us the skills to communicate with our fellow inmates, which was something we couldn’t do before,” he says. “Because of what they have taught us, we have expanded the number of inmates going through this course.”
Mark believes the PEP classes could have a wide-reaching effect on prison life. “There is a new mellowness and peace in people who have completed the PEP,” he says. “This also affects those who come into contact with them, resulting in an environment with less stress and aggression. These courses would radically change the prison environment if we could get the majority of inmates to attend.”
Perhaps it is this appreciation of the PEP course that accounts for why, on this special day, so many inmates chose to attend the course rather than watch their star footballers.
Latest news: the PEP course will start next year at a second prison in South Africa – Pollsmoor Maximum Security in Cape Town.