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South African Prison Evacuated Due to Squalor; Two Prisoners Die from Rat-Borne Disease

As bad as it gets in some U.S. prisons, conditions at the notorious Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa are so abysmal that the government was forced to temporarily close the facility and evacuate prisoners after two contracted a fatal rat-borne disease.

In 2015, around 4,000 prisoners were removed from the maximum-security prison where Nelson Mandela was once incarcerated. The transfers were made in massive convoys, said Ntobela Mketshane, Pollsmoor’s area commissioner. The shutdown of Pollsmoor – which was overcrowded by 300 percent – was necessitated after two prisoners died due to leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread by rat urine.

Conditions at the facility were terrible, with up to three prisoners sharing one lice-infested bed; some suffered from starvation and others from untreated illnesses. Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, who inspected Pollsmoor, wrote: “The extent of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, sickness, emaciated physical appearance of the detainees, and overall deplorable living conditions were profoundly disturbing.” Cameron reported prisoners with boils, scabies and wounds from “lice-infested bedding that has never been washed.”

Correctional services spokesman Manelisi Wolesa said the evacuation of prisoners from Pollsmoor was to prevent an outbreak of leptospirosis. He claimed prison administrators were fumigating the facility.

The inhumane conditions at Pollsmoor prompted the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union to weigh in. “The entire place is really a mess, nobody deserves to live in such a place,” said spokesman Richard Mamabalo. “Our view is that prisons should not be a death sentence. It is meant to be a place where people can be rehabilitated.”

Correctional facilities across South Africa have a reputation for squalidness. Olympic sprinter and double amputee Oscar Pistorius, also known as the “Blade Runner” for using special blade-like prostheses, was housed at the Kgosi Mampuru II prison after being convicted of killing his girlfriend. He reportedly refused to eat the food served at the facility for fear of food poisoning. Pistorius’ attorneys cited poor conditions at Pollsmoor, Mampuru and other prisons as a reason to allow him to be placed on house arrest after serving just ten months of his sentence, which was extended from five years to six years on July 6, 2016.

Sources:, BBC 

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