Everything is under control at the troubled prison, correctional services assured this week. But the inmates there tell a different, harrowing story.
Sello Mbatyazwa has been kept in isolation for the past eight months at the Kokstad prison in KwaZulu-Natal. He is only allowed out of his cell for one weekly phone call. He used this call to tell me earlier this month about the dire state of affairs he is in.
Late last year, the situation in the Mangaung prison spun out of control, following a lengthy spate of riots, hostage takings and stabbings, which led to the dismissal of 330 striking G4S employees.
On November 11 last year, two weeks after an exposé in the Mail & Guardian about the conditions at Mangaung, Mbatyazwa and 21 other inmates were transferred from the G4S prison to the “super-maximum security” prison in Kokstad (which is not run by G4S). “We were told that they were charging us with a hostage taking in Mangaung prison,” said Mbatyazwa.
But the inmates deny they were ever involved in a hostage taking and they were never formally charged. There have been several hostage incidents at the Mangaung prison. Since their transfer, the 22 inmates have been locked up in isolation cells in Kokstad for the past eight months.
“I was not let out of my cell at all for a week,” said Mbatyazwa in a phone call to me earlier this month. All his meals were served in the cell and he was only allowed out of his cell for one weekly phone call.
But this week, the acting national commissioner for correctional Services, Zach Modise, announced that the department of correctional services (DCS) will start withdrawing in phases from Mangaung prison, previously run by British security firm G4S. The department took over the running of the prison in October.
A 12-month investigation by the Wits Justice Project, published in this newspaper in October last year, revealed that G4S staff allegedly used electroshocks excessively and forcibly injected inmates with antipsychotic drugs.
At the time, G4S said: “G4S denies any assaults or use of torture, either by means of electroshocking or medical substances, on inmates. “
According to the department an investigation into alleged abuse has been finalised and G4S has 21 days to respond to the findings.
“The department had succeeded in stabilising the situation at the centre and in restoring effective control, discipline and rehabilitation programmes,” it stated in a press statement released on July 14.
Isolation of inmates in single cells is governed by strict rules in South Africa – isolation may not be imposed as a punishment and is only allowed if the prisoner is a risk to himself or others. The judicial inspectorate for correctional services must be informed and a nurse, psychologist or medical practitioner has to visit the inmate every day. If the prison authorities want to extend the segregation, a disciplinary hearing has to take place after seven days. According to Mbatyazwa, none of these measures were taken.
The Wits Justice Project gave the inmates in Kokstad prison the name of a lawyer to help them to challenge their prolonged confinement, but the prison authorities turned down their request.
“My unit manager, Mr Scwebu, told me that no attorneys are allowed in Kokstad prison,” said Mbatyazwa.
The prison management refused to respond to queries about the treatment of inmates.
Meanwhile, the situation in Mangaung prison itself is apparently not a lot better and inmates complain that not much has changed.
“We thought that DCS were here to help us with our grievances but the situation in the prison are [sic] worse than the G4S management,” an inmate wrote to the Wits Justice Project.
He and other inmates who phoned the Wits Justice Project have complained that they are being locked up for 23 hours a day and sometimes are only let out of their cells for 30 minutes to shower. According to this inmate, two prisoners went on hunger strike to protest against these conditions.
Assaults on, and electroshocking of, inmates seem to be ongoing, according to claims by inmates.
The Wits Justice Project spoke to approximately 100 sources during its investigation last year, including inmates, warders, healthcare professionals, government and G4S officials. Leaked video footage, shot inside the prison by the emergency security team – who are also known as the “Ninjas” – showed inmate Bheki Dlamini, who has no psychiatric history, being forced down on a bed by the Ninjas, after which he is injected with an unknown substance.
At the time of the M&G story, G4S said: “The clinical management and diagnosis of inmate patients are managed by a reputable third-party medical facility, which treats a patient’s medical information as confidential. G4S therefore has no access to the specific medical records of inmate Bheki Dlamini. The medical practitioners are bound by ethical codes and the law.”
Currently, the only punishment the global security firm has to contend with are the fines it has to pay for the infringement of the contract it signed with DCS for the maintenance and running of the prison.
‘Scope of probe necessitated longer time’
These are the replies from the department of correctional services (DCS) spokesperson Manelisi Wolela to a number of questions from the Wits Justice Project:
Is the investigation into what happened at Mangaung prison publicly accessible?
Not at this stage ... DCS is awaiting a response from Bloemfontein Corrections Contract. DCS will keep the public abreast of developments.
Why has it taken so long? When the investigation was announced, the minister said it would be finalised in a matter of weeks. It has taken 10 months.
While DCS had every intention to ensure that the investigation is completed as soon as possible, the nature and scope of the investigation necessitated that it take longer than anticipated.
The department has managed a very complex investigation, elements of which were driven by various institutions of the state.
In addition to the investigation, DCS succeeded in stabilising the situation at the centre and in restoring effective control, discipline and rehabilitation programmes.
Will there be any prosecutions of the alleged electroshocking and/or forced injections?
The police are dealing with all instances of any criminality and [the offenders] will face the consequences of their actions.
Are you aware that 22 inmates were transferred to Kokstad prison from Mangaung two weeks after I broke the story on the electroshocking and forced injections? They were told that they were there because they were involved in a hostage taking, but were never formally charged. They have been kept in an isolation cell since.
The safe and secure custody of inmates is a priority of DCS. There are over 50 inmates that were transferred from among others Mangaung and St Albans correctional centres. The judicial inspectorate of correctional services is available for investigating any instances of deviation from our policy and regulations.
Ruth Hopkins is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project.