South Africa: prisons are the 'worst places', offer 'no rehab', says fees must fall activist Kanya Cekeshe

South African prisons offer "no rehabilitation" and instead of rehabilitating criminals the jails merely offer them a "life of institutionalised crime".

But Fees Must Fall activist Kanya Cekeshe says he hopes to empower prisoners and help them gain more rights.

Cekeshe was released from prison on December, 24 after he was sentenced to eight years in jail for public violence and malicious damage to property in 2017.

He pleaded guilty to setting alight a police van during the Fees Must Fall protests in 2016.

Speaking to News24 on Monday morning, Cekeshe said government needed to fix the prison system.

“Our prisons are one of the worst places to be because they offer no rehabilitation. Gangsterism is so high within our prisons. It’s just this life of institutionalised crime, and that needs to be looked at because that place changes you as a person. You don’t go in there and afterwards come out the same person,” he said.

But during his time in jail, Cekeshe said he did his best to ensure that he made the most of it by changing lives while he was at times also at his lowest due to the strain his case took on him.

So he took up teaching in prison because he realised that most inmates were “uneducated” and needed education. He said he realised that inmates, in fact, required the free education the Fees Must Fall movement fought for.

“You realise that a whole lot of people who are in prison are there because they could not access the necessary resources they needed to make a better life for themselves. I took up teaching to try to help influence and educate people. I taught English.”

Cekeshe also joined the Prison Management Committee, which fought for the rights of inmates. He noted that there was no adequate nutrition and safety, which is why he joined the committee.

“I couldn’t just sit still and let that environment be the way it was because it is not what it’s supposed to be,” he said.

Cekeshe said the system in jail was so violent and volatile that it “attacked the minds and bodies of inmates”.

Visibly emotional, he reflected on the day he was sentenced, and the day he was taken to “Sun City”, officially the Johannesburg Central Prison.

“The reality of it all sunk in when I went to Sun City. When they closed that metal door, I realised that for the next two and a half years, this will literally be my home. That was traumatic.”

But he was hopeful that someday the situation would change. He said he was grateful that he had a support system, even from people he didn’t know, who rallied behind him while he served time inside.

From receiving emails from fellow student activists to letters and visits from strangers, the support was overwhelming, he said.

“My family was amazing throughout the entire experience because I had some low times. The situation is so violent and volatile that it attacks the mind, body… “