Prisoners get shot at being stars
Televised talent search is a chance to shine – and learn valuable skills, writes HELEN BAMFORD
IT’S USUALLY only the more notorious of the “Numbers” gangsters who enjoy celebrity status behind bars, but now other inmates at Pollsmoor Prison have been given an opportunity to shine. They have participated in a television production called Jail Star – a kind of Idols for offenders – which is due to be released to some 66 prisons across the country next week.
Dressed in prison orange, contestants dance, rap, recite poetry or sing love songs, hoping to impress a panel of judges comprised of two wardens and an inmate.
As in Idols they have to compete for the top spot and earn the grand title of Jail Star.
But the programme is not just about fun and entertainment.
It is one of several produced and filmed by inmates who are taught skills in television by the Prison Broadcasting Network, a non-profit organisation committed to rehabilitation.
The network, run from Medium B, which houses sentenced adult males, was started as a radio station in 1999 by Marius Boaden, who previously worked in the film industry.
He started off with just a small portable CD player and a handful of CDs, but over the years it has grown into a fully-fledged studio.
In 2007, when a television network was introduced in South African prisons, Boaden said he knew television was the way to go.
He said changing the life of a petty criminal meant another loaf of bread might not be stolen. “But when the life of a murderer, gangster or rapist is changed, it can prevent another life from being taken or destroyed.”
He bought their first broadcast camera with his own money and launched the television production training division last January.
They now have two cameras, but only one tripod and no lights, so it takes about three months to produce one half-hour programme.
Boaden said the main purpose of the project was skills development, but also to produce programmes that were relevant to offenders.
“Soapies and sport are the biggest hits in prison and Jail Star is likely to keep inmates glued to their screens.”
It presented an opportunity for prisoners to let their guard down for a bit.
“They have an opportunity to be themselves in an environment that is very unreal. It also helps rehabilitation, with the inmates and wardens working together.”
As in Idols the judges could be a little harsh – not necessarily a wise idea when you are dealing with hardened prisoners – but it was all in good fun.
One judge suggested a contestant “stick to listening to reggae rather than singing it”, while another scolded a prisoner for inserting his own words into a song. They all occasionally battled to hold back giggles during one or two particularly excruciating performances.
But Boaden said the purpose wasn’t to break spirits or “do a Simon Cowell” (the judge on American Idol whose biting comments often reduce contestants to tears).
Jail Star consists of five half-hour episodes including a gag reel. About 35 prisoners took part, but Boaden said the biggest challenge was that most of the contestants who made it through to the second round had been transferred to different sections or other correctional facilities by the time they needed to film them.
“We also have many restrictions on time, and for some reason the power goes out five to six times a day, but we do what we can.”
The network had trained 110 inmates in radio and television, a number of whom were doing well since their release.
“One guy is in China teaching English as a foreign language and taking videos, and another has been a successful estate agent in Gugulethu for the past three years,” Boaden said.
Special Assignment spent two weeks inside Pollsmoor Prison filming the work of the Prison Broadcasting Network and talking to inmates about how their lives have been changed.
The programme will be screened on SABC3 on Tuesday at 8.30pm.
HANGING LIVE: Inmates Robert, left, and Kwanele, who have been taught camera skills by the Prison Broadcasting Network, filmed Jail Star.
PANEL: Judges warden Herman van Wyk, inmate Quinton and warden Jonginkosi Biko were hard to please.
TAKE TWO: Marius Boaden of the Prison Broadcasting Network has been involved in prison rehabilitation in Pollsmoor, teaching radio and television skills, since 1999.
JAIL STAR HOPEFUL: Dane, an inmate at Pollsmoor Prison, gives his best shot at singing to impress judges.