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Hope inside one of South Africa’s most notorious prisons

“You know, when you look at these people you realise, they look so normal and so ordinary, but they’re the people who have caused others a tremendous amount of pain and grief that really cannot be solved,” Pastor Willie Dengler tells me. He’s talking about murderers. Rapists. Armed robbers.

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He’s talking about the inmates of some of South Africa’s most notorious prisons. And he’s talking to me in the car on the way to meet some of them.

A sea of bright orange jumpsuits stamped a hundred times over with one word: “corrections.”

I’ve been sent to South Africa by Bible Society Australia, to gather stories on a few Bible projects that Australian donors have supported. We’re in Johannesburg and I’ll be one of six people entering the city’s prison today with Pastor Willie’s organisation, World Hope Ministries – a Bible Society partner.

There’s only one other woman coming in. We’re visiting Johannesburg Correctional Centre’s male medium-security block, called Medium B. I’ll be one of two women among more than one thousand men.

“Just be aware at all times that you’re standing out of the crowd …  that you’re standing next to one of us or next to a guard,” Willie tells me. “Going in for the first time, I would just take a deep breath, say ‘Thank you Lord’ for the opportunity and don’t look surprised and don’t look shocked. It’s not that bad inside this prison. But it’s not the place I’d like to spend another day.

“If you get emotional, that’s OK.”

“Does that happen a lot?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Pastor Willie. “We do have ‘family’, as we say, ‘on the inside.’ We’re pretty happy with that. We don’t go into a situation which is totally devoid of Christian faith. And so you should feel at home after a few minutes.”

Pastor Willie is right: I do find brothers on the inside.

Inside the prison, it is a sea of bright orange jumpsuits stamped a hundred times over with one word: “corrections.” One inmate has the words “I’m in a zoo” scrawled across his back in thick black marker.

We’re led through concrete halls that smell like urine. Shouting voices echo everywhere. Guys with mop buckets move systematically in and out of the hallway – wiping down cells we’ve been told we’re not allowed to take photos of.

The hallway opens to a large courtyard, hemmed in by three storeys of brickwork topped by another storey of barbed wire fencing. No one’s getting over that.

The courtyard is full of African men. Some are playing soccer in the dirt. Some are dunking orange suits or sheets in garbage bins full of brown water. They wring them out, creating muddy pools in the dirt, and then hang them out of any window they can find.

Most are hanging out in groups in the sun. For a few hours a day, it’s the only sky they’ll see.

We’re ushered into a concrete room right off the main courtyard, where more orange-suited men are sitting in rows facing forwards.

As our group plugs in a speaker and microphone, the men start to sing spontaneously. They’re singing worship songs, mainly in Zulu, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. The microphone kicks in and the speaker is really loud. One voice rises above the others and a cacophony of voices become as one, in praise of God. In a concrete hall, in the middle of a prison.

It’s here that I meet Andrew, one of the inmates. I don’t know how long he’s been in prison for. I don’t know what he’s done. None of that matters because today Andrew is graduating from a Bible correspondence course run by World Hope Ministries. The course is devotional in style; you read the Bible on your own or in a small group inside the prison and move through a workbook. There are several levels in the course, and at the end, you graduate and receive a Bible, provided by Bible Society.

Andrew’s eyes are on fire as he speaks to me … He is searching for more that God can teach him.

I watch as Andrew’s name is called and he heads to the front of the crowded room and clutches his new Bible – his first, he tells me.

“It means a lot. It means a lot. What I’ve learned in my six courses is so much … many things. That God is our Saviour and we must always praise him. “[I’ve learned] that everybody has got a second chance. God is the one who has planned my life. Maybe he planned that I must change my life in prison … I will continue to do all these things outside and continue to encourage people so that they will follow our Heavenly Father.”

Andrew’s eyes are on fire as he speaks to me. He is nervous but passionate. He is searching for more that God can teach him.

That’s the story for thousands of other prisoners completing the devotional courses.

In 200 prisons across South Africa, transformed men and women are hearing the good news of a second chance and God’s love.

You can help Bible Society reach 15,000 more inmates with God’s powerful word and give them hope and a fresh start, just like Andrew.

Can you support Bible Society Australia’s work in South African prisons?

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