Why do NEVA MACGREGOR and JEN CLAMPETT, the sweetest of grannies from the burbs, meet up with hardened criminals in prison?  SHIRLEY FAIRALL found out

Jen (left) and Neva: ‘It’s life giving!’  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Former teacher JEN CLAMPETT attended Randfontein High and the University of Port Elizabeth. She has four children and seven grandchildren and lives in Cape Town’s Kalk Bay. Former teacher NEVA MACGREGOR was educated at Germiston Girls’ High and Cape Town and Cambridge universities. She has four children and five grandchildren and lives in Cape Town’s Kirstenhof

Thislife Online: What led you to work with criminals?

Jen: I’d always admired people who jumped in eagerly when a need presented itself, whereas I needed time to weigh things up. This would mostly leave me feeling daunted, and I’d walk away. Then someone asked me what legacy I’d like to leave. I realised I’d spent more time spectating than participating in my church life, and something needed to change.

Before long, I found myself assisting as a facilitator in Pollsmoor Prison on Alpha, a course run around the world that enables anyone seeking spiritual refreshment to ‘brush up’ their Christianity, or explore it for the first time. That was 12 years ago. I was aware I was an inexperienced, somewhat elderly, white woman with not a whole lot to offer in this situation – or so I thought. I prayed for God to go with me and to work through me. The next step was facilitating the Restorative Justice programme which aims to transform prisoners. In all the time I’ve been involved with it, I’ve never once felt anxious, only appreciated. It has proved to be the most rewarding, life-giving time of my life!

Jen and Neva outside Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison, one of the prisons in which they facilitate the Restorative Justice programme, and in which Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for over six years  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez 

Neva: When I retired, I enrolled in a counselling course. This required me to do practical work through which I met Jonathan Clayton, a prisoner turned reverend. Together with his wife, Rev Jenny, Jonathan had started Hope Prison Ministry many years earlier.

He invited me to be part of the Restorative Justice process and his enthusiasm, energy and gift for prison ministry inspired me. The first time I facilitated was in a female prison, but since then I’ve worked in most of the male prisons in the Western Cape.

Neva discusses restitution with a group of prisoners. ‘Most offenders weren’t taught moral values and 95% never had a loving father figure in their lives,’ she says

Thislife Online: What exactly is the Restorative Justice programme?

Jen: It exists to bring about healing and restoration, and prevent future crime. Wardens, social workers and psychologists hand-pick the participants, who are warned that the process is confrontational so that they can decide whether or not to attend. The process opens the eyes of offenders to the ripple effects of crime, and the many victims they leave in their wake. We start by encouraging them to reminisce about their childhoods, hoping that together we can pinpoint where and why things went wrong.

Neva: Fully 95% of male criminals didn’t have a loving father in their lives, or don’t know their fathers. When they reach puberty, without a sense of belonging and guidance from a positive male figure, they can be tempted to join gangs.

no concept of approval

Jonathan says that in his experience people turn to crime because somewhere along the way something went wrong in their lives, so they’re emotionally and physically broken. We invariably discover that they were never taught moral values and have not experienced love and nurturing. Sometimes, when you ask a prisoner to tell you of a compliment he received as a child, not only does he not remember being complimented, he doesn’t even have a concept of approval. There’s a high incidence of violence in the formative years of most prisoners, and emotional and verbal abuse too. Almost all are perpetuating a cycle of crime that started in their families long before they were born. Restorative Justice aims to stop that cycle.

Jen and Neva work with Reverends Jonathan and Jenny Clayton, who started Hope Prison Ministry. Jonathan first experienced prison the hard way, having been imprisoned for committing fraud, before he rehabilitated and became a church minister. Their ministry exists to bring about healing and restoration, and prevent future crime
Rev Jenny Clayton at work on the programme, which opens the eyes of prisoners to the ripple effects of their crimes
The Restorative Justice Programme is attended voluntarily by prisoners and run by a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-denominational team that welcomes and respects all religions

Jen: On the second day of the process, the focus shifts to the victim. Prisoners often come into this day thinking they’re the victim because of what we discussed the day before. Now, they’re challenged to face the fact that they’re the perpetrators.

We introduce the men to a concept they’ve rarely thought about: the ripple effect of their crime. They didn’t just harm the victim but the victim’s family and their own families, their community and all the people who witnessed the horror of the crime, such as the police, paramedics, medical staff and cleaners. We explain that broader society has been affected too: the high incidence of crime affects the South African psyche and impacts businesses.

The effect of crime is brought home to the prisoners when crime victims recount painful details of how their lives have been permanently impacted by crime. Even 20 years later, victims can be emotional when they talk of the traumatic effect of a violent crime, of dropping out of school, of losing self-esteem and their chance of a normal life. Some have even ended up in prison themselves. This always shocks the inmates. They assume their victims have long forgotten about their crimes and moved on. Now, they’re brought to the painful understanding that their one act ruined lives and created many more victims than they’d ever considered.

On the third day, we encourage them to start building a foundation of honesty, trust, respect and integrity in their lives.

a new start

Neva: Honesty’s a big one. Some 70% of offenders plead not guilty in court, which just re-victimises their victims and prolongs their court cases. Prisoners are now encouraged to tell the truth about their crimes and acknowledge guilt.

We end day three talking about priorities: family, education, sport, healthy habits and positive friends. We also talk about God as the rock that can stabilise lives. Mostly, we find that the men have heard of God and respect the Bible. Now, they see that a new start is possible. But the hard reality is that they can’t serve a gang and serve God, so they need to choose one or the other to be able to move forward.

The process is tough, but enables prisoners to start building a relationship of trust with their families 

Jen: On day four, we deal with responsibility, accountability and confession. Many of the inmates don’t know what remorse is. We equate it to being so sorry for what they’ve done that they’ll turn their backs on their criminal lifestyle.

Neva: We encourage the guys to confess to all their crimes, especially those for which they weren’t caught. The number of hidden crimes is often shockingly high and we’ve had the experience of long-term inmates confessing to crimes they’ve hidden for 20 years.

16 years ago, a young offender was causing havoc at Pollsmoor. He was aggressive and manipulative, smuggling drugs and recruiting for gangs. But he had a dramatic change of heart on the Restorative Justice programme, experienced the presence of God, renounced his affiliation to the gang and has become a gifted facilitator and mentor in our team. He later admitted that the only reason he kept attending the course each day was to steal sugar during the coffee break!

‘We help offenders take responsibility for themselves. A new start is possible,’ says former teacher Neva  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Jen: We have a saying: what you keep, you carry. We teach them about the weight of carrying that burden, and invite them to put it down by confessing.

Neva: We talk about the roots of criminal behaviour and help the guys take full responsibility for themselves by understanding that drug and alcohol abuse are just symptoms, not root causes.

‘We invite prisoners to put their burden down. We see their hardened exteriors soften,’ says Jen, who became involved with prisoners after being asked what legacy she’d like to leave  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Jen: The fifth day is the day of restitution and change. An offender can’t give back a life or someone’s dignity after rape, but what he can offer is the truth and his own changed life. On day six, prisoners have an opportunity to confront their families with the truth so that they can start building a relationship of trust with them. Families and partners have often had zero contact with them as it’s too expensive to visit, so we track down their families and raise the funds to bring them to the prison for this part of the process.

The family day is tough. Parents often arrive having believed their children were innocent, but in the previous five days their sons have been preparing to be honest about their past so they can be freed from the guilt they’ve been carrying. It works the other way too. We’ve witnessed fathers confessing to their own roles in their sons’ behaviour, whether by absence, example, or lack of care. We see dramatic transformations. I’ll always remember a gang leader falling to his knees and weeping like a child as his stepfather admitted to his own failings.

Neva: After the Restorative Justice programme, we run a follow-up programme with the men for 10 weeks, discussing how an offender can give back to society and, where appropriate, working towards a voluntary victim/offender dialogue. It takes courage for victims to face the offender, and we make sure they have the necessary support. We must be sure the offender is prepared to tell the truth.

We’re a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-denominational team and we welcome and respect all religions in the process. Many of us have the time to do this because we’re retired but there are some younger people on the team, too. We always need more volunteers!

The programme also works towards dialogue between offenders and their victims

There are many programmes in correctional centres, but the Restorative Justice process is known to change lives. Data isn’t formally collected but our experience is that few of the men who participate in these courses return to prison. We believe that none of the results we see are about anything we do. We just show love and watch God breaking the cycle of crime.

St Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. I think that, as humans, we have a desire to know what we’re living for. At the heart of Christian faith is a relationship with God and I believe that it’s in this relationship that we find what we’re living for.’

Down time for the prison grannies. ‘As humans, we have a desire to know what we’re living for,’ says Neva. ‘St Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God’  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Keen to support or volunteer for the Restorative Justice programme? Email Jonathan Clayton or investigate Hope Prison Ministry on Facebook here

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