Barry Godwin

60-year-old Barry Godwin lives the life of a beach bum in Ballito, his sun-drenched signature beard of 25 years and friendly personality making him something of a local celebrity. But his life hasn’t always been as laid back.

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​Barry lives a simple life, but it hasn’t always been an easy one. Underneath his golden beard lie the scars of a broken soul. A few years ago  he was arrested for possession of cannabis and served 11 months at Pollsmoor Prison, a maximum-security facility in Cape Town, South Africa. The marijuana he had on him wasn’t much, and today it is considered to be a legal amount. However, back then, it was a criminal offence and punished by incarceration.

Prison has the power to break anyone, but it didn’t break Barry, it made him the unique man and the legend he is today.

“How did you end up in Pollsmoor prison?” I ask Barry.

Barry smiles at me as he rolls a cannabis joint and says: “Getting arrested by the police is nothing. Without thinking too hard, it has happened no less than 12 times in my life. Mostly for possession of dagga, nonsense assault accusations, riotous behaviour, and contempt of court.

“Before I ended up in Pollsmoor I had no job, no money, no home. I was living in a cave on Kalk Bay Mountain, in Cape Town. The police chased me, arrested and released me regularly; I believe it was after the 11th arrest that the magistrate threw the book at me and sent me to Pollsmoor prison for a 21-month sentence. I went from the hard-living lifestyle on the mountain, to the hard-living lifestyle in prison.”

‘Were you afraid? Pollsmoor is known to be the most dangerous prison in South Africa and home to the most ruthless criminals?’

Barry pauses for a minute to have another smoke.

“Getting arrested is never a pleasant experience. The police throw you in the back of a van, and suddenly you find yourself locked up in a small cell with any number of criminals charged with any crime. That’s when the fun starts. ‘Wie is jy in die tronk?’…an Afrikaans expression that means ‘who are you in jail?’, and no one prepares you for that. You try to explain but the ‘gangsters’ will start robbing you of your possessions; cigarettes, matches, jewellery, your clothes and shoes. You must remain calm and relax if you make the slightest resistance you can expect a severe beating.

“The caveman experience helped me with a smooth, easy passage into Pollsmoor prison, I had three feathers in my cap: I have come from a hard-living background, I had been in jail before, and I’m a very stubborn man.” We both smile.

“You are nothing in jail,” Barry carries on with his story. “Unless you are a number like 26, 27 or 28, in other words, a ‘number gangster’, you will be referred to as a ‘Frans’, and the 27’s gangsters will continuously watch you.” Barry’s voice goes softer and deeper as he pauses for another smoke.

“What are 26, 27 or 28 number gangsters?”, I ask Barry.

“They rule the prison,” says Barry. “In South Africa, once you are sentenced, prisoners are classified into three different categories: convicted of a financial offence, sexual offence or a crime of violence.

The 26’s gang specialises in robbery and smuggling money. They usually work as the cleaners in the prisons. The 26’s keep the other prisoners [‘frans’] alive and are responsible for acquiring supplies, like money, drugs, cigarettes and other luxuries.

The 27’s are the men of blood. They are ruthless, career criminals, and most violent of the gangs. They enforce the laws and codes of the other numbers. If one is a 28’s and not a ‘wyfie’, one can become a 27’s by taking blood and lots of it.

The 28’s, they are the sexual offenders, who also have sex or who are raped in the gang, and they also believe in same-sex relationships. The 28’s usually work in the kitchens. The members of this particular gang are the ones I was more afraid of,” Barry admits.

“Were you ever molested or seriously harmed during your time in Pollsmoor prison? “I ask. Barry responds with a solid ‘NO’.

Barry continues with his story. “I was the only white on the police wagon, also called ‘meat wagon’ that takes all the prisoners from court to prison. The wagon is jammed and what goes on the back of those wagons is scary stuff. Some of the Frans will be robbed and brutally assaulted. Not long after arriving at Pollsmoor, I realised the ratio was one white inmate per hundred blacks/coloured/Indians, the same as in the police wagon.

“After a hell of a ride, I arrived at the prison and assembled on the courtyard. I was asked to squat, drop my trousers down and show I got nothing hidden up my arse. Some prisoners will smuggle up their arses cellphones, drugs and money. Then, I was sent to another crowded cell, where I waited for my next court date.”

“So how long did you remain in the shared cell?”

“Just about a month,” Barry replies. “I was back into the ‘meat wagon’ to go to the court where I got sentenced and again sent back to Pollsmoor prison as a convicted prisoner. It was then when I was given the green prison uniform and prison shoes in the remand section of the prison. But while no one was looking at me I found a quick gap and managed to swap my brand new shoes with One-Stop.” Barry looks at my puzzled face, giggles and explains: “One-Stop is a reasonable amount of cannabis!

The correctional officers then escorted me through the gates barefoot and with One-Stop cannabis hiding in my underpants.

The one-stop I managed to smuggle helped me to earn the right reputation among the gangsters, but I refused to join any of their numbers. The first three months in Pollsmoor were hard, but I was liked by most of the prisoners and gangsters. I didn’t have much, but I learned quickly how to share whenever I did have something.

After serving 11-months at Pollsmoor, I got transferred to Brandvlei Prison for the remainder of the 10-months of my sentence. I survived Pollsmoor barefoot and with my long beard.

“How was it like in Brandvlei Prison?”

“Wie is jy in the tronk? Same story,” says Barry. “Ironically, I had it worse there. Firstly, they shaved my long beard on arrival, and no long after that I was caught with a ‘blaaitje’, small amount of cannabis, just enough for one joint, and the guard on duty that day took it hard on me, so I ended up in chains, locked up in the punishment cell, and tortured.”

“What else would you share about your time in prison?”

“No much more. They wouldn’t understand it . People that have never been incarcerated have no way of knowing what that means. People might say : Being in prison must have been terrible.’ Yes, I would say. But no matter what I tell you will make you understand that my world is now different from everybody else’s, and that’s okay!

“By the time I completed my sentence and I was finally released, I realised prison had become more like a hotel. Free accommodation and nutritious meals, and no one bothered me. I believe freedom is in your mind; otherwise, I would have gone mad inside prison.”

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I leave Barry to his little home on the edge of Ballito beach. “Freedom is in the mind,” I repeat to myself, and I know, that even after such a short time listening to his story, my world, in some small way, will never be the same either.

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