Pollsmoor: the prison that wasn't built for people

A decision to treat inmates at Pollsmoor humanely had made a dramatic difference in day-to-day life at the prison, the Jali Commission heard on Thursday.

The commission was hearing testimony from John Jansen, who since 1997 has headed Pollsmoor’s massively overcrowded Admission Centre, which largely holds awaiting-trial prisoners.

The centre houses some 3 300 inmates, crammed up to 55 in a cell designed for only 18.

“I can never believe that prison was built for human beings,” Jansen said.

He said that when he took over, the centre had been in a “chaotic” state, with no managerial structure, and prisoners to a very large extent in control of “situations” inside the prison. There had been shootings and even a hand grenade explosion inside the prison, gang violence was the order of the day, and some staff were even afraid to enter it.

“The system of the past was never conducive for human rights, conducive for rehabilitation, conducive for interaction,” he said.

He had divided the centre into small management units, each with permanent staff to inculcate a sense of responsibility. He also opened up channels for prisoners to air their views and frustrations, something which had never been done before.

Sceptics had claimed that prisoners would make unreasonable demands, but in fact they had asked for the most basic things.
“What they ask from you is to treat them as a human being,” said Jansen, a former president of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights


Humane treatment had had a huge impact on prisoners, shifting them from a destructive way of thinking, and making them realise there were alternatives to violence in resolving conflict.

This was a challenge, not only for the department but also for the government, to create this culture in society at large and to “rehumanise” people.

Juveniles had for the first time been housed in a separate prison from adult offenders, and children under 18 separated from older juveniles. In what he said had been a “risky” but rewarding move, prisoners

who were recognised as gang members were kept apart from non-gangsters.

The dramatic reduction in gang activity in the centre was shown in the number of injuries reported to the prison hospital, which dropped from 244 in 1996, to only 39 so far this year. The previous system had also resulted in a high number of escapes.

The centre in contrast had experienced only one attempted escape in the past 15 months, the result of its concept of “dynamic security” based on human relationships.

He said the prison was also making an effort to draw prisoners’ families into the rehabilitation process, and was also taking reformed gangsters from their cells to address schools and communities.

Jansen said treatment of prisoners in apartheid South Africa had been among the worst in the world, and had played its part in the drastic increase in crime and murders and human rights violations in prison.

“The humane approach is the way forward,” he said.

He also told the commission of his own anger in the early 1980s when a white dog handler at the prison called him a “Hotnot”, and when his superiors at a subsequent disciplinary hearing accused him of lying about the incident.

“I must admit to the commission that was the day I felt I could commit murder,” he said.

“I was totally humiliated…. I think I would have killed them.”

He said Popcru had discovered in 1989 and 1990 that senior prisons officials were using state materials to build holiday homes, and installing engines from state vehicles in their private fishing boats.

The officials were all given golden handshakes after 1994 and left the department as rich people.

“Those are some of the things that were brought to us to expose and to correct. That shows you that corruption was rife prior to 1994,” Jansen said.

The commission, which is tasked with probing corruption at a number of South African prisons, this week began its Western Cape hearings which focus on Pollsmoor. - Sapa

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