Working in South African Prison, Will Godfrey Learns Impact of Gang Life

William Godfrey spent six months in South Africa working with youth in prison and learning how gangs impact the lives of young South Africans. Godfrey, a senior, lived and worked in Cape Town studying issues surrounding the rehabilitation and reintegration of incarcerated young people.

"It was hard to negotiate the cultural differences between the participants and myself due to our different nationalities and to reconcile the fact that they were young men who were deeply immersed in a unique prison culture which I did not understand," Will Godfrey 2013.

“Working with the NGO Young in Prison, I organized and led life- skills courses and creative arts activities for young men and women in Pollsmoor Prison,” says Godfrey, who was in Cape Town from January to June of 2012 as part of CIEE (Council of International Education Exchange) Service Learning.  “I was responsible for creating and mediating discussion-based classes on different subject matter like HIV, gangs, and violence,” says Godfrey, of Stewartstown, Pa. “I designed creative arts activities which focused on the skills and ideas discussed in the class.”

Those art pieces were collected to be published in the organization’s magazine which showcased the issues surrounding rehabilitation and the issues facing young people in the criminal justice system. Godfrey also designed and implemented a manual and curriculum for the creative arts program.

“Gang violence in South Africa, especially in lower income or no income township areas, was very prevalent,” he says. “In my experience of visiting schools and working with young men and women in prison, I learned that gangs are perceived as the only means of ensuring safety and a way of life. There are limited opportunities in township areas due to the conditions brought about by apartheid. Gangs have power and influence and can protect their members from other gangs, so kids join these gangs because it is the best and only option open to them.”

Godfrey’s experience led him to believe that the prison system, though meant to rehabilitate offenders, instead releases them with even fewer options than they had prior to their incarceration. “They return to the gang,” he says, “and end up in prison again.”

Will Godfrey in Souyth AfricaIn addition to his work within the prison system, Godfrey worked on a community dialogue program designed to bring members of township communities together in order to discuss issues of crime prevention and to showcase issues surrounding the reintegration of offenders into their communities. This included a photography exposition designed by Young in Prison post-release participants.  As part of his work, Godfrey visited township high schools to mediate discussion groups on crime and gang lifestyle.

“My experience in Cape Town was very applicable to my degree because it gave me a greater understanding of the social, political, and economic issues facing  South Africa and allowed me to better understand the culture and history of the region,” says Godfrey, who is a double major in French and International Relations and will graduate in May. “It gave me great experience working with at-risk youth in a foreign country and acquainted me with the benefits, but also the limits, of non-profit programs and enforced the importance of community led sustainable development efforts.”

As someone who wants to pursue a career in development, Godfrey says, it was a vital experience.  “This opportunity to work with people from other cultures taught me the importance of working with, and learning from, the community at hand. It taught me to understand what issues need to be addressed and what are the most effective ways to accomplish these goals in the long run. It was important for me to understand that the opportunities afforded to me by my race, my nationality, and my income level were critical in dictating my position in life and that the issue of gangsterism is less an issue of young people making terrible and uninformed decisions but that these young people are living in a social structure that necessitates these choices.”



One thought on “Working in South African Prison, Will Godfrey Learns Impact of Gang Life

  1. I am an art teacher and Bridging Polarity thorugh ARt therapist. I am interested in prison work with youth. How can I get in touch with the right people for this? Thank you.

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