Prison. It’s overcrowded. It’s understaffed. It’s loud. Gangsterism is a constant. The potential for a fight or a stabbing is just around the corner. Complaints outnumber the barbed wire spikes surrounding the place. I’ve heard it said, “Prison is an assault on the senses.” But that’s just a normal day.

If working behind bars wasn’t already hard enough, this worldwide pandemic has added yet another layer of anxiety and mistrust in a place that was already a daily battlefield – both psychologically as well as physically. “This thing is like an abusive husband. It has isolated us from each other. And now…fear.” This was one officer’s take on how the prospect of COVID-19 infiltrating the correctional system has impacted the relationships among colleagues in the maximum security center at which she works in South Africa.

While the national lockdown was in place, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) closed its doors to the public – including all visitors as well as non-profits/non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Left more alone than ever, correctional staff were, and are, on the front lines in this war we are fighting. Without the option of staying home, these men and women continue to courageously show up to work each day, risking their lives and the health of their families as they carry out the duties laid before them.

To say that prison is a tough place would be an understatement. But this season of the world has magnified that even more.  The officers are scared. The offenders are scared. One staff member told me yesterday that in the shop for offenders, Dettol has been sitting on the shelves for ages, expired for years. But with the onset of coronavirus in South Africa, suddenly the cleaning supplies got bought out by the offenders, who are also brimming with stress and anxiety.

There’s really no obvious reason for hope in circumstances such as this. Which is why it is all the more shocking when you do find it.

It was decided to transform part of one local prison into the DCS Regional Hospital for offenders who have tested positive for COVID-19. You can imagine this added even more fuel to the fire of fear that was already burning. As the first infected offender was brought in, the call was sent out:  officers are needed to guard this person as well as care for her needs. As I write this I am reminded of a passage in Isaiah 6:8, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”

Surely no one would answer this call. Surely no one would put their lives even more at risk. But the heroes are emerging. Ms. J. Nkoma*, Head of the local Female Centre, sent me a message letting me know one particular staff member “rescued a situation we found ourselves faced with.” What was she referring to? A correctional official by the name of Ms. N. Bongiwe* answered that call of, “Who will go for us?” with, “Here am I.  Send me.” She put her hand up in circumstances most others were running from.  She was among the first to step closer towards the danger, rather than shrink away from it.

But she’s not the only one. Just across the premises at the Medium A Centre, correctional officer L. Vendu* responded just the same.  Fellow colleague K. Mtshaka* was impressed by this, sending me a message about Vendu saying, “She volunteered to work with the offender who is having the virus.” Volunteered.  This could have played out far differently. Orders could have been given. Pleas could have been made. Arguments could have followed. But these two women volunteered.

And there’s more! Correctional staff are stepping up to the plate, now more than ever. They are protecting themselves, their colleagues, the offenders. They are protecting you.

I’m guessing you didn’t know that DCS employee D. Somyala* of the Medium B Centre, arrives on duty at 05h00 and often only leaves with the day shift members at 16h00. And since the Special Remission of Sentence was announced on December 16, 2019, her colleague reports she has often been known to sacrifice her evenings and only report off duty at 22h30, “ensuring offenders’ profiles are professionally completed before submission to the CSPB.” She has also risen to the occasion in this current crisis. Her fellow DCS member reports Somyala is “going the extra mile” and that since the lockdown she “implemented and regularly updated the sanitizing/cleaning list in the CMC” and “would remind members as well as offenders to respect the rules concerning lockdown while executing her own duties.”

And let me tell you about correctional officer Mr. V. Ngxasa* of the Medium C Centre. His name keeps coming up for all the right reasons. Since the lockdown, he’s the one ensuring that each staff member in his centre completes their daily screening forms.  And he makes sure every person has a mask and a pair of gloves. But before you say to yourself, “Well, that’s just his job,” let me add a bit more to it – because his colleagues are not saying, “that’s just his job.” Attitude is everything. One colleague said, “He is bold and not controlled by the judgment of others.  He strives for the best version of himself. He loves his family, and he stands for the truth no matter who is attacking him.” Wow. It’s one thing to carry out the motions and complete a task, but when your colleagues are describing you with words like the above in addition to “kindhearted” and “compassionate” – in a prison and during this pandemic – then it’s safe to say you’re going beyond the call of duty. The stories I’m hearing about this guy lead me to believe he’s going out of his way and serving in a manner that makes others stop in their tracks for a moment.

These are the stories that must be told. These are the heroes of our era. Whether running to the aid of infected offenders; tirelessly working way beyond a normal day’s shift; or choosing to serve with an attitude of love and compassion:  this is courage in the face of fear.

This crisis has changed all of us in some way. For some, like the correctional staff at this local prison, it’s making their light shine brighter. Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Brave men and women are conquering fear in South Africa’s prisons.

*Names and other identifiers have been changed for security reasons.