22 July 2024 | 04:34 AM

No escape from hell behind bars

Key Takeaways

Russian novelist and political prisoner Fyodor Dostoevsky remarked that “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged

by entering its prisons”.

If the tales told by former prisoners and warders are a measure, South Africa is not very civilised.

The Mail & Guardian interviewed ex-prisoners and warders in Jo’burg and Cape Town over several weeks, as well as experts on the prison system.

They said that, in spite of the hair- raising revelations of the Jali inquiry of 2001/2006 into prison conditions, endemic corruption among ward- ers and the use of torture against inmates, often as a form of collective punishment, persists.

“Very dirty things are happening in South Africa’s prisons,” said Sidwell “Soso” Koli, who came out of prison in 2009 after serving 12 years for armed robbery and theft.

“Ugly is a beautiful word for what is happening there. When you go to prison, you must throw away your heart and create an iron one.

“There are very few good warders. Some warders sell inmates to other inmates for sexual activities. You find tik, rocks, mandrax and steak knives in prison. The only way that gets into prison is through a warder. And because of that greedy warder inmates are going to hurt each other. You have to be a lion in there.”

Thabo Zenani, who left prison in 2000 after nine years for armed robbery, said that prisoners who have “good relationships” with warders are protected and get privileges.

Golden Miles Bhudu, president of the South African Prisoners’ Organisation for Human Rights, claims that almost every warder in South Africa’s prison system is implicated in bribery and corruption.

“Some prisoners have cellphones,” Bhudu said.

“Those don’t fall from the trees, they come in because offenders are so [well] connected, they can pay the officers. There is even a prostitution ring in our prisons.”

Bhudu said it was not surprising that warders turned to crime.

“If the system leaves me working with dangerous offenders and doesn’t take care of me, of course I will become corrupt. Warders have been complaining about salaries for years.” [see “No guarding for the guardians”]

Jimmy de Lange, who left Johannesburg’s Leeuwkop Prison in October last year after doing 12 years for murder, echoed the claim that cor- ruption was pervasive, but insisted that it served no purpose to complain about it to the authorities.

“There were warders who’d been charged with corruption who were still working,” said De Lange.

“There were warders that were caught bringing in dagga. But if you complain, they take your privileges away. They get suspended for a day or two and then they’re back.

“There was a time a warder was stabbed, and everyone was tortured. They would take someone, put a gas mask on him, cuff his hands and feet, put him in a cold shower, pepper-spray him and beat him and give him electric shocks.

“They used batons with electric voltage. The way the guy screams behind that gas mask haunts you at night.”

Former prisoners said that collective punishment was a regular occurrence, with all the members of a cell being tortured for one offender’s misbehaviour.

“They call you one by one and beat you,” said Bruce Siningwa, a former prisoner.

“Peo-ple die from beatings. Even if it gets reported, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

One instance of torture meted out as a collective punishment, which has been reported to the authorities, allegedly took place at St Albans Prison in Port Elizabeth.

There, 273 prisoners have laid charges against Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the minister of correctional services.

A former prisoner at St Albans, Bradley McCallum, told the Herald newspaper that, after a warder was stabbed, inmates were forced to lie naked on the wet cement floor of a prison corridor, where about 20 female warders allegedly walked over them and kicked them in the genitals.

As a result of being beaten with shock boards — electrically charged batons — the inmates allegedly wet and soiled themselves.

After a few hours of such treatment, they were returned to their cells in that state.

Their attorney, Egon Oswald, said he was still waiting for a trial date.

Megan Bantjes, the co-ordinator of the South African No Torture Consortium, complained that, although the media had covered the issue of torture in prisons there had been no public outcry.

“These are unpopular victims,” she said.

“The prevailing feeling is that they deserve it.”

According to Lukas Muntingh, the project co-ordinator for the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative at the University of the Western Cape, the evils of South Africa’s prison system can be narrowed down to four major shortcomings: accountability, transparency, ignorance and the non-implementation of rights.

“Officials are not held accountable for things that go wrong,” Muntingh said.

“Following the 55 unnatural deaths mentioned in the department of correctional services’ annual report, there was not one prosecution.”

The prison system was opaque, he said, and the quality of information in annual reports questionable.

The department of correctional services was asked to comment on the cases of torture described by the former prisoners but declined.

Former prisoners interviewed by the M&G doubt that conditions behind bars will improve.

“In prison, there’s a war going on,” said Zukisa Matanjana, on parole after serving five years at Pollsmoor for theft. “Prison is another world.”

No guarding for the guardians

It’s not just members of South Africa’s 118 000-strong prison population who complain of conditions behind bars.

Warders say that the immense difficulties they face are forgotten in the uproar about the plight of inmates.

Nape Masha, a warder at Boksburg Prison, said that, although there was supposed to be a ratio of one warder to 10 prisoners, the ratio in his institution was 1:50.

“There are too few officials,” he said, “so offenders can stab warders and each other. They can also plan escapes and the smuggling of goods.”

Masha said that understaffing also drove warders to use force more often than necessary, and that this was then recorded as torture or abuse.

Matsimela Matsimela, a warder in the Vereeniging Prison, said that warder corruption “must not be understood in the context given by prisoners. Prisoners can make up serious stories.

“If a prisoner wants to get dagga from his friend in another cell, he asks an official to accompany him. If the official says no, the prisoner goes to the head of the prison to complain that the official asked for money.”

Warders also complained that there was too little specialised support for them, particularly when crises erupted.

“One day in Vereeniging Prison, we were four officials and 300 maximum security prisoners,” Matsimela said.

“They held me hostage with a gun. There was a shoot-out and three prisoners died that day. There is no debriefing process and no psychologist. You have to use your own medical aid.”

Masha told of a female warder who was raped at Baviaanspoort Prison.

“There were no counselling sessions for her or the other female warders,” he said.

“Everyone goes back to work immediately and is expected to be productive.”

Warders implicated in killings

More prisoners in South Africa are killed each year by prison officials than by other inmates, according to a report released by the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services at the end of last year.

“The incidence of officials involved in the deaths of inmates raises serious concern,” the inspec- torate’s annual report says.

“Officials appear to have been involved in acts of violence against inmates who are alleged to have assaulted an official or other inmates.

“Preliminary reports indicate that these actions often constitute a form of revenge in response to an attack on an official.”

In the past year eight inmates were killed by officials, it says.

In some instances, the inmate was assaulted by a number of officials, and then “denied adequate and timeous medical treatment”.

At the same time, the report says, it is rare for officials to be prosecuted for their role in the torture or death of inmates.

“Our reading of the reports, however, indicates recalcitrance on the part of authorities to take decisive action against correctional officials involved in such cases.

“Unless this is done, the confidence of stakeholders in the department’s ability to reduce acts of violence and to protect the most vulnerable under their care, will remain at a low ebb. The creation of a culture of impunity must be avoided at all costs.”

The inspectorate facilitates the inspection of prisons so that the inspecting judge, Deon van Zyl, can report on the conditions and treatment of inmates in correctional centres.

The report claims that another problem in South Africa’s prisons is the way in which deaths are recorded.

Often an unnatural death is recorded as natural, meaning that it is not the subject of an inquest or investigation.

South Africa’s prisons are also heavily overcrowded, with an occupancy of 139%.

The fullest prison is King William’s Town Correctional Centre, at 247% of capacity.

According to the report, the 19 recorded centres with occupancy levels of more than 200% are of particular concern.

The report complains that at these centres “the conditions under which inmates are detained are shockingly inhumane and do not remotely comply with the requirements set forth in Section 35(2)(e) of the Constitution, namely ‘conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity, including at least exercise and the provision, at state expense, of adequate accommodation, nutrition, reading material and medical treatment’.”

This article was produced by amaBhungane, investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit initiative to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest. www.amabhungane.co.za.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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