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What My Time at a Prison Taught Me About Human Rights


Sunday 21st March is Human Right’s Day in South Africa. It’s a very important day that has evolved from a specific day in 1960 but also from a general past where human rights were grossly violated and the effects still live on.

I once spent a stint working in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape town and was astounded by the amount of trauma in the lives of the offenders. It was little wonder that they turned to crime in many instances. Please know that does not mean I am saying it is acceptable, particularly in the case of murder and rape. Yet, when I heard time and again of how their own rights for safety and basic human needs had been violated over and over again it just saddened me as I saw this cycle of violence and human rights violation continue.

Sadly, the prisoners often continued to be treated like vermin and there were times basic rights to safety, warmth and health were not met in the prison. As psychologists my colleagues and I were treated by many of the warders as unnecessary as they did not see why offenders should be shown any form of care.

When we do not experience love and empathy we cannot know it, internalise it and we experience it in relation to others. At the very core of this – the way we were treated or how we experienced life often plays a large role in how we treat ourselves and/or treat others.

Most of us dislike ourselves on some level. We find aspects of ourselves unacceptable or bad because they resulted in being rejected, criticised or unloved or people were afraid of those aspects within us because it triggered them. When we can’t accept ourselves we either hurt ourselves (and this can be by being really hard on ourselves and creating physical burnout and depletion) or we hurt others by projecting those things we don’t like about ourselves outwards on to others.

The most powerful way to grow empathy and then to share this with the self and with others is to start with understanding of and compassion for the self – for ALL aspects of the self. If this is difficult then please consider reaching out for some support to work with someone who can mirror back to you the beauty of your soul which you are unable to find. Because we are all divine beings born pure, full of love, with a passion and trust for life and these qualities are still alive within each of us today. Sometimes we just need some help to meet ourselves fully and to have compassion for who we are.

Imagine we all embarked on this journey?
Imagine how much more compassion and empathy we’d all show ourselves and, in turn, others?

This is possible and when your life and health feels like it is falling apart this is often a prod from your soul that it is time to start this journey to wholeness and well being.

Go gently and be kind to yourself.


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on this post.


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