There is no end to the shocking abuse that continues to flourish inside South African prisons. The disgraceful and uncontrolled criminal elements lurking inside prison walls often go unnoticed by citizens of the country. Injustice and appalling conditions tarnish the reputation of the South African Department of Correctional Services. Deterioration and active illegal crimes within prisons pose a danger to prisoners, who are often victims of prison gangs.
The claims of abuse span back over a decade, and prisoners from 2005 are suing a maximum-security prison near Port Elizabeth. They are seeking financial compensation for injuries they sustained while serving their time, including claims of electrical shocks, being forced to strip naked, and being subject to beatings. Inmates allege that wardens often smelled of alcohol and walked around with their uniforms covered in blood from prisoners they have hit. There are also claims that medical treatment was denied to prisoners after they had sustained severe injuries.
South African prisons are appallingly overcrowded, and text messages from inmates of Leeuhof Prison during June 2014 claimed that a cell designed to accommodate 30 people was used by wardens to force up to 80 people into a single cell. Often prisoners have to sleep on the floor, sharing two toilets, showers, and basins. Bathing is problematic as the water is turned off randomly, and queuing is another problem. Some cells have no water, and trash cans are filled with water from fire hoses for cellmates to use and bathe in. Toilets are often not flushed due to water shortages, and prisoners are forced to live with the stench and filth.
Money is the ruler inside prisons and can be used to smuggle drugs into the cells. The guards are often bribed to bring phones, drugs, and other commodities into the cells, and inmates claim more drugs are available inside than on the outside. Money will buy protection from gang-related rapes but guards, for a price, will arrange rapes of young prisoners. Two guards will stand outside a cell door while up to eight people rape the victim, and condoms are an absolute necessity in prisons. Gang leaders have the option of buying a juvenile prisoner by negotiating with wardens who will then transfer the selected person to the leader’s cell, where he will be used as a sex slave until he is discarded or sold to another prisoner. First-time rape victims often are exposed to repeated rapes.
Text messages also state that Leeuhof prison is worse than hell. Stabbings, fighting, drugs, and corruption are a daily occurrence and inmates are intent on exposing the elements of crime within the South African prisons. Drug abuse inside prisons is dangerously ignored while bribery is ultimately the force behind rising exploitation.
Cornelia De Wet, South African political prisoner, spent 21 months in prison before her bail application was approved. In Middleburg prison, De Wet said drugs were accessible and available at all times and kitchen staff, together with guards, would deliver them when requested by inmates, all for a monetary exchange. The food, according to De Wet, was often appalling and not fit for human consumption. Flies and mouse droppings were visible on food servings, and bread was often moldy. If prisoners refused to eat, they would be locked up for the rest of the day. Others were given permission to bathe if they consumed the unhygienic food. With money, inmates could get decent food cooked by government kitchen staff on the prison facilities.
De Wet was transferred to three different prisons during her 21-month term and in Bethel Prison, she was the only white woman locked away with 28 blacks. According to De Wet, cells were germ-infested and filled with cockroaches, other bugs, mites, flies, and lice that caused more irritations than the guards on duty.
On Jan. 28, 2013, De Wet appeared in court for a bailing hearing, was attacked by police, and taken back to the prison where she managed to take an overdose of pills. De Wet was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at the Witbank hospital. Apparently after four days in a coma, she woke up handcuffed to the bed and undressed. When she asked for her clothing, she was refused and had to endure the humiliation of lying naked in front of prison guards. During February, De Wet had both her feet and hands handcuffed in chains, and was transferred to a prison in Pretoria where she spent her days in solitary confinement. After engaging in a hunger strike, De Wet was transferred back to Middleburg Prison. De Wet describes the prison as a polluted, unsanitary, and disgusting confinement where inmates openly engage in sexual activities, use drugs, and disrespect everybody. Prison wardens deliberately do not discourage the typical abuse among inmates and intimidation is often the ruling factor.
Hustling within the prisons is often the only way for sanity to prevail. Prisoners describe the ability to bribe the guards for food, protection, drugs, and other essentials needed. Guards often hide drugs in their boots, as detector signals fail to reveal the hidden supplies. Inmates text about the corruption of prison officials as being big business connected to outside syndicates who continue to supply drugs at a price.
Fights often happen between inmates over trivial matters such as a slice of stolen bread. The guards do not hesitate to use their batons and hit prisoners who appear to cause trouble. If any attempt is made to double-cross inmates, beatings occur, delivered by inmate gangs who have their own set of rules.
The cell phone is one of the most dangerous possessions inside prisons, as this opens the channel to communicate with the outside world. The disclosure of information is scary and can often help or hinder a prison sentence. Manipulation by guards who continue to earn a state salary and openly engage in bribery and corruption do not help the prisoners accept the responsibility of crimes committed.
Many inmates spend years behind bars just waiting for their trial to reach the courts, and the declining justice system does little to protect the criminals who are subjected to more crime inside the prison walls than outside. The justice system fails the entire correctional department services and corruption rules inside South African prisons. The shocking abuse continues without any apparent intention on the part of authorities to prohibit the ill treatment of prisoners.
Opinion by Laura Oneale
Image by Daniel Arauz – Flickr License