The first part of John Palm’s life story is not very different from that of a thousand others playing out on the Cape Flat’s every day. Born under an oppressive regime, into a dysfunctional family, to parents who were addicts, he is driven by poverty to crime, drugs and gangsterism. His early life is cluttered with abuse and condemnation.
Usually such stories end with the person dying in a gang fight or drunken brawl but not this one. In jail, Mr Palm – from Tafelsig – found hope and freedom from his generational afflictions.
Debut author Janet Mills, a close family friend to the Palms, captured the story in her self-published book Finding New Beginnings. Ms Mills says she wanted to tell this story for several reasons. Firstly, she hoped it would inspire others caught in a similar cycle.
“I was fascinated by John’s story. It’s such an amazing compelling story of hope.”
She also wanted to highlight the work done in prison ministry and how painfully difficult it is for ex-inmates to reintegrate back into communities without falling back into their old criminal comfort zones.
“We had a mission in writing this, to create awareness. We would love for more people to come on board, to get involved in helping those who are released from prison, who are struggling with drug addiction and gangs. If you’ve been on drugs and you come out of prison and there’s your dealer on the corner to give you a free hit, you have to be really strong to say no.”
And lastly she wrote the book because she wanted to tell the story of how prison life affects the families outside.
“I was interested in telling the story of Glenda,” Mr Palm’s wife, whom Ms Mills describes as “the forgotten victim”.
Ms Mills and Mr Palm’s friendship is a juxtaposition. Mr Palm is a coloured man who grew up in poverty in Lavender Hill – Ms Mills is a wealthy white woman from Constantia. Both minister to convicts at Pollsmoor Prison.
“I have a heart for these young men who grew up without fathers, with gangs, drugs and prison,” Ms Mills said.
Ms Mills began working with Hope Prison Ministry in 2007. Mr Palm was assigned as her mentor.
In her book she wrote: “I reflect now on the extraordinary set of circumstances which has brought me into such a close relationship with this ex-offender. John, who spent nearly 11 years of his life in prison, and was labelled by the courts as a habitual thief, has been out of prison since 1978 and is now involved in full-time prison ministry.”
Mr Palm’s rehabilitation was a spiritual journey. According to the book, Mr Palm found healing when he had a spiritual encounter in a jail cell. But the healing didn’t end there; it continued during the writing of the book.
“I sometimes got emotional,” Mr Palm said. “I found healing as time progressed and I went for counselling.”
But the book is a lot more than the Palms’ story. It goes into gory detail about the horrors of the number gangs and other abuses in prison, some of which, Mr Palm said, have been on the decline since 1994.
“(Prison) changed quite a lot. In those years, when you did something wrong, (the wardens) would come into the cell, eight to 10 of them, with batons and they would beat everyone in the cell. Now the culprits are taken out and dealt with alone. The officials will take the person out and speak to him on their own,” Mr Palm said of some of the many changes that have been implemented since the new democracy.
Rehabilitation, however, is still a challenge, Mr Palm said.
“As a result of the overcrowding and the impact of the number gangs, there are many prisoners who don’t get rehabilitated,” Mr Palm said.