Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town is well known for its famous inmate, Nelson Mandela and also for being the most violent prison in South Africa.  Gang wars, stabbings and murder are a common occurrence but Pollsmoor is also quite unique due to a rehabilitation project that is having a profound effect on some of the inmates.

Initiated by a warder, a programme of bird rearing was introduced in 1998, that  has grown substantially since then and presently has approximately 90 birds at various stages of rearing. Several inmates have gone on to become successful bird breeders.

Potential participants are required to attend an intensive training course in bird care and bird handling and, on completion of the course, are required to sit an exam to test their knowledge.  Participants are randomly tested for drug use partly because the aim of the project is rehabilitation but also because one cannot provide the required care whilst under the influence of a narcotic. 

It takes approximately 4-5 months before anyone has sufficient experience to be entrusted with birds of their own.  During this time the work will be with babies in brooder boxes, adolescent and weaned birds and the inmate will have gained some experience in wing clipping, nail/claw manicure and standard medication such as de-worming and food supplementation.  The project leaders allocate birds, giving them only to inmates with the appropriate level of experience to rear them correctly.  Inmates are divided into two groups, one caring for the baby birds until they are strong enough to leave the brooder boxes and, once they have moved into cages, the second group takes over the care through the weaning stage. 

Some chicks, on arrival at the project need to be hand fed hourly, day and night.  All the birds are monitored closely and accurate records kept of each one’s weight, digestion rate, condition of droppings (a good indicator of health) and number of feeds.  This requires a serious commitment from every prisoner taking part.  Also, by being actively involved in the caring and rearing of baby birds, the inmate naturally begins to draw on their compassion and, before long, is walking around proudly showing off his charges.  It is not unusual to see someone going about his daily chores with a bird on his shoulder, a grown man destined to a life of hardship and rejection, baby-talking to a small bird while it nibbles on his ear.

Chicks are bought from breeders and, once hand-reared, are sold to the public.  People come to the prison to pick up their bird and will find out from the handler exactly how to treat it properly.  There is such huge demand for exotic breeds such as the Eclectus or Cape parrots that they are booked and paid for before the egg is even hatched.  Profit from the bird sales are then put back into the project for food, medication, cages, advertising and to buy the chicks from breeders.

Standards are high because some of the exotic breeds are exceptionally rare and require special care.   Recently two very rare Cape parrots were successfully reared.  Some of the many species reared include African Grey, Convres, Maximillian Pionus and Eclectus parrots, Indian Ringnecks, lovebirds, Meyers, Jardines, cockatiels and lorikeets.

The initial concept of allowing prison inmates to assume responsibility for hand-rearing baby birds was at first met with scepticism but soon proved to be a resounding success.  The project received worldwide attention with lectures being given on the therapeutic value of the birds on prisoners and regular groups of tourists are taken around the project.

Inmates involved in the project soon find that there is an element of prestige involved.  Not only does it cause them to adopt a more positive attitude about themselves but results in other inmates adjusting their behaviour too.   Bird project participants are held in high regard by fellow inmates and prison staff alike.

The underlying core of the programme is patience, love and responsibility.  Patience and responsibility come over time, the love for the birds comes naturally.