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Patricia Schonstein

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Poems for imprisoned youths

On Saturday, I delivered poems to a prison.

Walking through the first set of double gates, I sensed a strange peace, as though time itself were standing still, as though all the activities of everyday life had come to a final, quiet end.

I was body-searched and relieved of my bag, escorted through an iron turn-style and led down a corridor to a metal door that was unlocked to give entrance to a common room where sat some thirty youths all dressed in blue with shiny black shoes. I say all this with minimum punctuation to capture the way I was breathing, before taking a gulp of air as the iron door was locked behind me.

Prison protocol prevents me from saying where I actually was or with whom. Suffice to say that it was a certificate-giving ceremony for young prisoners who had completed a certain programme. Their small audience comprised parents and other relatives and wardens.

The prisoners were all young men with fresh faces that belied the ghastly crimes against which they had ransomed their liberty. They did some gum-boot dancing, read poems they had written and presented short dramatic skits. Their band played loud music. Talent was palpable. Energy was vibrant. Eyes glowed. Mothers beamed. Wardens were caring, as though of their own sons.

The yellow covers of Africa! My Africa! opening in unison in the hands of these young men, were like birds flying down from a wire.

I came home and lay down on an embroidered bedcover, weakened by having been among those caged energies. The beautiful needlework wrapped me like ivy and let me weep.





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