John Jay College students go behind bars to better understand South Africa

5 Apr 2017 - 14:30
Students form John Jay College


“The Cape Town programme has exceeded my expectations. It has been extremely educational and profoundly moving,” says Tialena Elliot from John Jay College. Elliot was part of the international group of 11 students that visited UCT from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York (CUNY) at the start of this year. The aim of the visit was to participate in a short-term winter course called “The Culture of Race, Resistance and Revolution in South Africa, Then & Now” hosted at UCT.

This programme, organised by the Short Term International Programmes (STIP) and led by Dr Baz Dreisinger, Founding Academic Director, Prison-to-College Pipeline, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, included two days within South African prisons to engage in a learning exchange with the incarcerated men and women there.

The course aims to provide students with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the key issues facing South Africa – then and now – as related to three things that have shaped the nation: race, resistance and revolution.

“Our aim is to get a handle on South African culture beyond the too-simple Mandela-as-saviour veneer, with an emphasis on the “born-free”/post-Apartheid generation, the #feesmustfall movement and the country’s present-day criminal justice crisis,” states the course outline.

John Jay Prison-to-College Pipeline program 

The participating John Jay College students are all students of social justice from across a range of disciplines. One member of the group is a formerly incarcerated student who came to John Jay College via its Prison-to-College Pipeline program which offers college courses and re-entry planning to incarcerated students in New York State.

This student was granted a full scholarship and parole permission to make the journey. Two other visiting John Jay students are involved in the Prison-to-College Pipeline as outsiders who regularly take classes with their incarcerated peers inside prison walls.

Going behind bars inspired students to start a book drive

The time spent engaging with prisoners at the Drakenstein prison in the Western Cape had a particular impact on the students.

“It has been such a powerful experience and one I’ll carry with me for a lifetime,” says Janet Lopez, one of the students.

During their visit the students also spoke on radio – as guests on Preston Jongbloed's CCFM program – about their experience and the vital role that access to education for all plays in creating safer communities.

Inspired by their involvement in this course and their visit to the prisons in Cape Town, these international students started a book drive initiative, which ran all through the month of March, to raise educational funds for incarcerated men in South Africa.