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South Africa: 'American Idol' for model prisoners

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Prison Broadcasting Network

(Read caption) Inmate contestant feels the rhythm at Pollsmoor Prison.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Simon Cowell is nowhere to be seen, and there’s no audience. But for the inmates of Pollsmoor Prison, the dream of being a star is no less keenly felt.

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Dressed in orange uniforms, 35 inmates have been competing to be South Africa’s first “Jail Star,” displaying their talents to a panel of two wardens and a fellow inmate.

The men, ranging in age between 21 and 34, have been dancing, singing, and reciting poetry in the hope of winning the coveted title and their 15 minutes of fame – albeit behind high walls. After four rounds, the final was a battle among two singers and a dancer inside a prison where most inmates are members of vicious gangs.

The competition was set up by Marius Boaden from the Prison Broadcasting Network, a not-for-profit organization that teaches life skills to prisoners at Pollsmoor, which holds 7,000 inmates and was once home to Nelson Mandela.

“On ‘Jail Star’ we tried to reach out to the inmates, give them something positive to think about instead of just gangs and violence,” says Mr. Boaden. “We’ve been working with prisoners for 12 years, so we already had a good relationship.”

The show was seen inside the country’s 66 jails via DVDs played on TV sets.

Working inside prisons offers its own challenges, says Boaden. “One of the main problems was prisoners being transferred to other prisons [before the contest was] finished. I remember one singer who stood out – you could say he had the X factor – [who] was transferred before he could make a mark,” he says. “There wasn’t really a Simon Cowell-type [judge] – we want to praise them, not break them down.”

But not everyone has been happy with the competition. “I do not think prisons are an appropriate place for this kind of thing,” says Pieter Groenewald, at the opposition political party Freedom Front Plus. “I’ve nothing against reality television, but [prisoners’] time should be put to better use.”