Mensch changemaker of the month

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Dr Baz Dreisinger

As the founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline global movement — a higher education program inside prisons that began in New York and launched in South Africa on Mandela Day, 2018 — as well as the Executive Director of the Incarceration Nations Network, I have dedicated my life to one Biblical verse: “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue!” 

And for nearly two decades now I have been privileged to see what flowers when those whom society has brutally discarded are afforded genuine opportunities—especially educational opportunities. So I am honored to share this piece of writing by one of South Africa’s first Prison-to-College Pipeline students, still incarcerated at Pollsmoor Prison. He can speak to the power of this work far more cogently than I can. 

Education not incarceration By J.N.C. 

It is often said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 

In 2002 I was sentenced to life imprisonment, and it seemed as if there were no more steps in my life’s journey. Upon entering prison, it soon became apparent to me that the vast majority of people incarcerated here were completely illiterate. Some of the most feared prison gangsters, who could command the death of anyone, were in large unable to even write their own names. I had always been at the top of my class whilst at school, yet now I was at the mercy of masses of uneducated people. Even the majority of the prison staff were at best merely partially educated. Faced with rampant, violent gangsterism, drug addiction and almost every type of vileness all around me, I felt as if I was on the brink of abandoning all hope—as if I was about to fall headlong into an abyss from which there would be no return. The odds were just way too heavily stacked against me. To say that I was utterly confused by this dark world would be the understatement of the century. I was, at best, completely lost. 

On the 21st March 2002, however, whilst in prison, the unthinkable happened: I was fortunate to meet the former President Nelson Mandela, who was visiting the facility. He said to me, “Never let prison define who you are. It’s never too late to follow your dreams.” It was a lightbulb moment for me. I personalised those words; I held onto them and they became a beacon of hope to me and a complete centering. I had renewed hope. I was determined to “rise from the ashes” — and I knew that education was the vehicle with which I would do so.

After being shipped out from Pollsmoor Maximum-Security Prison, I decided to throw myself into any opportunity that would enhance my education. Over the years I have completed four diplomas; at present, as I prepare for my release from prison this year, I am busy doing my final three LLB subjects. But what gave me even more satisfaction than my own education was seeing just how education can change the hearts and minds of my fellow incarcerated individuals — even the most hardened ones. 

I began teaching English and Mathematics to other incarcerated students, and I was able to explain things quite well to them. Suddenly my classes were bursting at the seams with individuals who were highly interested in learning. Their assignments were timeously completed, and during their break-times they were now discussing mathematical formulas and boasting about things such as writing poetry and reading fiction instead of engaging in gangster lingo. It was as if they had metamorphosed into completely new beings. They loved coming to school, actively participating in class and striving to be the best, and their marks reflected an average of seventy-five percent. Many of them even managed to turn their backs on gangsterism. That is what education can do—and what it did for me. 

But why did it have to take place inside a correctional facility? The vast majority of my students who have already left prison will never come back, thanks to the skills they acquired through education. They became new men. But what if these men had received education instead of incarnation in the first place? Surely our jurists have the skill-set to impose more creative “sentences” on people who cause harm to communities. Based on what I have seen and experienced during my imprisonment over the past 16 years, I can affirm that the way forward is this: Education, not Incarceration. Schools, not Prisons. 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Wow Prof. Baz
    I am truly humbled and excited at the same time.
    Thanks for publishing this.

    Looking forward to seeing more of the same in future.

    Jerome

  2. Thank you for sharing the letter by a former (!) prisoner who adapted my daughter, BAZ’s, all encompassing love and passion for learning to teach and open up prison-mates’ abilities that contribute(!) rather than destroy society’s needs. The required courage, strong vision/hope, and belief in Hashem (G0D) allows us to share and care for others the way Baz does. She is a merciful, wise “prophetess” and a giver…ו

    Miriam Dreisinger, EdD (AKA Mom)

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