In the same maximum security facility that once held Nelson Mandela, Rutgers graduate Chinwe Oriji has had some of her most eye-opening life experiences.
As part of a community outreach program, Oriji brought art, poetry and human interaction to the young men serving time for crimes ranging from small-time theft to murder.
The 7,000 inmates of Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa, know firsthand the effects of unemployment, lack of education and homelessness. They spend their days in overcrowded cells, their ordeal interrupted only by brief visits from outside clergy and the occasional social activist.
“It was a whole new world, a new reality,” Oriji says of the experience. “Before I started, I thought I would feel overwhelmed and intimidated, but I didn’t. The young men were very excited to meet me – they were receptive, sweet and incredibly hungry for knowledge.”
A 2013 Rutgers graduate with degrees in public health and Africana studies, Oriji recently began a semester at the University of Cambridge in the master’s of philosophy program in modern society and global transformation.
During study abroad in 2012 after living in DRC’s Africana House, and again this September through a grant from the Golden Key National Honor Society, the Allentown, N.J., resident worked with Young in Prison, which helps rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners through workshops and life-skills training.The population she encountered faced “almost insurmountable barriers,” she says – chief among them lack of access to education.
For two days every week, Oriji helped facilitate sessions inside Pollsmoor with 10 to 15 prisoners, encouraging them to think beyond their sentences, beyond the building’s formidable walls.
In one session, she had her “students” write two or three goals they wanted to accomplish, and the concrete steps needed to attain them. The next step in the exercise was writing letters to themselves and sharing with the group where they hoped to be in five years.
Another day, Oriji asked them to compose letters offering thanks to someone in their lives. “Some wrote to their moms, some to their girlfriends or to the main workshop leader,” she recalls. The goal was to teach them that, throughout life’s journey, they will encounter people who will support them, Oriji says, and to underscore the importance of demonstrating their gratitude.
The prisoners’ sentences ranged from nine months to 15 years. Oriji knew few of their specific crimes, only they that they often reflected the bitter circumstances of their lives.
“I would sometimes ask: ‘Why did you do what you did?’ Often their choices seemed rational within those contexts,” she says. “For example, they had a family, and they joined a gang to provide for their children.”
The daughter of Nigerian parents who immigrated to New Jersey in the 1980s to pursue their education, Oriji sought out the prison experience because a number of her friends have served time, many on drug-related charges.
The more she interacted with the prisoners, she said, the more she thought of them as men who could easily be sitting next to her in a Rutgers classroom. One vivid image remains of Abongile, 22, angry over his incarceration for gang activity. After working with him during her first stay in South Africa, Oriji remained in touch through Young in Prison. She was moved to tears to learn upon her return a year later that Abongile had turned his life around.
“He had a renewed spirit and was attending church in prison, singing in the choir. It’s amazing to see someone so bitter change so much,” Oriji says.
Not every encounter had a happy ending, Oriji acknowledges. “Sometimes you left with a feeling of joy over the progress you were making. Other days you would cry when you saw someone you’d worked with the previous week bandaged from a fight he’d been in,” she says.
Oriji continued her activism when she returned to the States, working in conjunction with Rutgers’ Mountainview Project, which helps ex-offenders make the transition from incarceration to higher education.
In addition to establishing a pen pal program linking prisoners in Cape Town with participants in the Mountainview Project initiative, she plans to bring four Mountainview Project members and four members of Freedom4Youth, a juvenile rehabilitation program in Santa Barbara, California, to South Africa for two weeks next July to meet face-to-face with their counterparts.
Oriji calls the venture, still in its early planning stages, I.Am.You (Igniting Ambition and Motivation in You). Partnering with Young in Prison, she hopes to bring felons and returning citizens together in a mentoring relationship, with the Rutgers students as models to show the young offenders how they can turn their lives around.
In the end, she reflects, her time with the prisoners benefitted her as much as it did the men behind bars. “I just felt as though I belonged there, like I was doing what I needed to do,” Oriji says. “The hardest thing was knowing you could only do so much.”
To learn more about the I.AM.YOU project, visit globechangers.org/IAMYOU.