by Gary Hunter
Corruption plagues South African (SA) prisons at every level as prisoners suffer violence and torture from both prisoners and warders alike.
Former high court judge Thabani Jali was commissioned, in 2003, to launch an extensive probe of SA prisons. His five volume, 3,500 page report was so unsettling that Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour launched his own futile attempt to defuse its explosive findings.
On September 16, 2006, two days before the Jali Report was released, Balfour optimistically reported that the country's prisons had either implemented or were in the process of implementing 60% of the report?s recommendations.
Two days later Balfour submitted only a 61-page version of the Jali Report to Parliament. Names of allegedly corrupt officials were not included in Balfour's "distilled" version.
Committee chairperson Dennis Bloem complained that the incomplete version prevented Parliament from implementing proper oversight. Balfour cited the need to provide accused officials an opportunity to defend themselves as a defense of his version of the report.
On October 21, 2006, Judge Jali accused Balfour of doctoring the report in an attempt to cover up the extensive fraud, corruption and organized crime pervading SA prisons.
Corruption headed the concerns of the Jali Report. Pietermaritzburg prisons were termed especially "ungovernable." But the explanation behind the chaos is more compelling.
In 1994, when conservative whites were being replaced with progressive blacks the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) maneuvered and manipulated its way into power.
"Secret meetings were held to orchestrate which senior positions Popcru members should be appointed and so infuse Popcru influence into the department," reads the report. Under pressure from Popcru most of the original "senior staff simply never returned to work and were then replaced by Popcru appointees."
The ensuing power shifts left major gaps in security as corrupt union members accepted bribes from gang members and individuals.
Gangs pervade much of the Western Cape both inside and outside of prison. Warders as well as prisoners are often gang members. In some cases gangs are used to enforce discipline inside prisons.
"Sex is a tradable commodity in prison," says the report. "Vulnerable young prisoners become sex slaves whilst incarcerated. Prison warders sell them to the highest bidders."
One prisoner who complained of being sodomized by two gang members at Pietermaritzburg's Grootvlei prison was then sodomized by the warder taking the complaint.
The report describes another instance in which 49 prison employees were dismissed for theft, intimidation and for charging prisoners a fee to have sex with their wives and girlfriends. Those employees were eventually reinstated to their jobs by the provincial commissioner on "humanitarian grounds."
Another prisoner, nicknamed MacGyver, after the '80s TV show character known for his impossible feats, has escaped six times from high security, Eastern Cape prisons. But escapes are seldom impossible for prisoners with enough money.
One Johannesburg warden charged prisoners between R10 000 and R200 000 for their illegal freedom. (Rand-to-dollar ratio is approximately 6 1/2-to-1)
The Jali report also noted mismanagement leading to gross overcrowding. Bizana prison operates at 400% capacity. Sixty prisoners share a single toilet. Lucky prisoners sleep two to a bed; the rest sleep on a concrete floor. All Bizana prisoners sleep in shifts.
Yet, 80km away from Bizana is a prison only 7% full.
The Jali report also decries the conditions of SA super maximum (C-max) prisons saying they propagate solitary confinement and torture. The report calls for their immediate closure.
Balfour strongly insists C-max prisons are necessary to hold "those who are a danger to society."
As prison officials and politicians point fingers and pass blame for the chaos and corruption that pervades their post-apartheid prison system it is questionable whether prisoners or politics present the greatest danger. What is most ironic is that apparently South African prisoners fared better in the prisons of the apartheid regime than under the post apartheid government, many of whose officials are themselves former prisoners.
Sources: Business Day; Mail & Guardian; The Mercury
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login