Birds Bring Purpose in Tough S. African Prison
CAPE TOWN - Bursts of birdsong cut sweetly across the harsh prison noises as heavily tattooed, gold-toothed murderer Bernard Mitchell nuzzles the five-week old parrot with motherly kisses.
"They think I'm their mom. They're almost like children," said the 41-year-old after gently blowing on warm porridge to feed the chick.
With a heated brooder box and cage in his cell, Mitchell is part of a project that has transformed inmates at a tough South African prison by giving them vulnerable chicks to hand rear.
"They touch you," said Mitchell. "I didn't have this kind of gentleness. I was a very aggressive person before, I was involved in a lot of stabbings, a lot of things. I had a very bad reputation in prison."
"The birds have taught me to have patience. I cannot be aggressive with the birds also. I have to love them, I have to care for them, I have to feed them. Everything."
The former high-ranking prison gangster, who was first jailed at age 14, is chairperson of the project in a dedicated wing where orange-uniformed inmates tend to their charges surrounded by bright tropical wall paintings.
Housed in Pollsmoor prison's male lock-up, each chick's weight is checked and recorded daily and fed up to every two hours until it is fully feathered and sold as a tame pet to bird lovers on the outside.
The project was started in 1997 by senior prison official Wikus Gresse who believed that animals had the power to reform even the toughest criminals.
"You can be a murderer. You can have done dangerous things. My criteria is you must show over a period in prison you can behave and you want to better your life," he told AFP.
"The bird is something for bigger purposes."
A self-financed success, it fields constant requests from prisoners wanting to join.
Sales are used to buy new chicks, which can cost as much as 1,500 rands (217 dollars, 153 euros) for an African Grey fledgling, with a share going to the inmates.
Places are limited to around a dozen prisoners who undergo training and must adhere to a ban on gangsterism, smoking and drugs. Even swearing is frowned upon.
In return, the bird men learn skills like holding meetings and are given privileges like single cells -- a 67.3 feet (6.25 square meter) space usually shared with two others due to overcrowding.
Stroking the stomach of a Senegal Parrot lying blissfully on its back in his hand, Lento Kindo said it was difficult letting go when the birds went to new owners.
"It feels very heartbreaking," said the 31-year-old serving five years for robbery. "It's almost like you're giving your babies away to someone else."
Nelson Mandela spent six years in Pollsmoor, which houses some of South Africa's most dangerous criminals in a country with 46 murders a day.
The program recalls the powerful 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz starring Burt Lancaster, a story based on real-life convict Robert Stroud who found purpose and dignity in prison by nursing birds back to health.
Though Gresse saw the film in his school days and admits it made a huge impression, he said his inspiration for the program came more from his own bird club and its search to start a project in the spirit of the new post-apartheid South Africa of the 1990s.
As in the film, the birds have had dramatic effects by bringing stress-alleviating warmth into grim jail life.
"I don't care about my sentence, how long I got, because the birds are nice, they keep me busy," said parole violator Lesley Jacobs, 37, as he pored over a pair of Lovebirds perched on his arms.
"It's beautiful to have birds. I've fallen in love with these two birds. If they are gone, I will always remember them."
Aggression and flares of violence against warders have also eased.
"That is what is actually giving these people a better outlook to life -- knowing that there is something that they can look forward to," said section head Olga Dayimani.
"And even when they leave this place, it's still impacting on them in a positive way."
Gresse said while three offenders ended up back in jails in Cape Town, one went on to work for a vet, another for a bird breeder and another now owns a taxi fleet.
The prisoners often receive letters from thrilled new owners, something that Mitchell says fills him with pride.
When he plays with his African Greys in the evenings, in his cell with a view of Cape Town's landmark mountains, he feels a sense of achievement by having safely raised a small helpless chick.
It's a lesson that Mitchell, who was jailed on a life sentence when his son was just one month old, feels can be applied on the outside.
"I can handle people, everyone, even outside I can also handle people like this."
Image: Keith Allison / via Flickr