Raped by the system

“I used to see it in prison. Others were raped, but it never happened to me,” said a convicted fraudster who spent seven years in jail, most of them at Cape Town’s notorious Pollsmoor Prison.

His claim about his own treatment is improbable. Experts and ex-prisoners say the young, the good-looking, homosexuals, the weak and those convicted of white-collar or “sissy” crimes are most vulnerable to male rape in South Africa’s prisons.

Such is the secretive nature of male rape that survivors view it through the lens of denial and avoidance.
And an ill-equipped criminal justice system remains unwilling to admit, let alone tackle, its pervasiveness.

The issue has been highlighted by two recent incidents. Former Fidentia boss J Arthur Brown was allegedly raped in a van transporting him from the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court to Pollsmoor prison last month. And the rape of a juvenile in a Medium B cell for sentenced adults at Durban’s Westville Prison has raised questions about sex slavery and corruption at the facility.

The 2006 Jali Commission of Inquiry described sexual violence in correctional facilities as a “horrific scourge” that “plagues our prisons, where appalling abuses and acts of sexual perversion are perpetrated on helpless and unprotected prisoners”.

There are no reliable statistics on prison rape because, according to department of correctional services spokesperson Manelisi Wolela, sexual assaults are filed under the general category of “assaults”.

Wolela said the sub-classification of assault reports was being “looked into” to “assist in developing appropriate intervention strategies”.

However, Sasha Gear, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) believes that “this fundamental problem gives a sense of the department’s lack of engagement with the issue”.

Gear, who has published extensively on sexual violence in prisons, said “gang practices are intertwined with prison sex”. The militaristic gang structures include “institutionalised marriages” which force gender identities on more powerful “men"and the weaker “women” or “wyfies”.

Marriages, says Gear, begin with rape. “Trickery, manipulation and coercion are just some of the ways new prisoners are forced into sex. The stronger ones working in the kitchen may not give as much food to the weaker new prisoners, or even withhold food until they provide sex.”

Sometimes, an offered cigarette or marijuana comes at a cost.

Gangs often appear to wield more power than prison staff, some of whom condone and even facilitate rape.

The 2006/7 Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons report found it “common cause that many prisoners do not accept the authority of correctional officials”. Acting inspecting judge of prisons Nathan Erasmus and colleagues observed “instances of prisoners roaming the prison corridors selling food illegally or promoting gang activities, often in clear sight of correctional officials”.

Derrick Mdluli, KwaZulu-Natal chairperson of the Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust and a former prisoner, said: “Prisoners are sold for sex by the warders—it happens every day.

“I wouldn’t want to estimate the price now, but you negotiate with the warder and they will bring a young one to the cell of the adults. This is what happened with the 15-year-old boy in Westville Prison.”

The judicial inspectorate claims it receives “daily reports from prisoners and their families of assaults [including rapes] and intimidation by fellow prisoners and prison gangs”.

But the department’s Wolela said the perception that rape is common in South Africa’s prisons is an “exaggeration”. “Of the 161 000 offenders in our care only 855 cases of assault were reported in the 2007/8 financial year, which showed a decline of 53% compared with the previous financial year when more than 1 800 cases were reported.”

According to a CSVR report on the Boksburg Youth Correctional Centre last year, 58% of recent assaults were not reported to prison authorities. Gear believes there is general under-reporting in prisons because of feelings of humiliation, stigma, “the feeling that it won’t make any difference” and fear of retribution by gang members.

“The problem is your sentence. You report a rape but then you’re at the mercy of the gang members for the rest of your sentence. Your life is in danger,” said an ex-prisoner speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some warders are also in with these gangsters. If you report a rape they say: ‘We can’t do anything to stop these things happening. We didn’t invite you here, you came here so you must live with it.’”

The latest judicial inspectorate report comments that “the ability or willingness of some correctional officials to protect prisoners and ensure their safety is severely lacking”.

Besides turning a blind eye to rape and the sale of victims, Gear has received reports of warders “preventing access to social workers and legal avenues” when rapes occur and survivors are considering reporting them.

The correctional services department launched an anti-rape campaign a number of years ago, but a CSVR briefing to Parliament’s correctional services committee in 2002 noted that it “had not yet filtered down” and that “people on the ground haven’t heard of it”.

There have been no further at-tempts to address the issue, according to Gear. “Skills and capacity building for staff, as well as guidelines for responses to rape are simply not in place. Staff who want to help have a sense of helplessness; then there is the understaffing and under-resourcing of facilities.”

Wolela claimed that tightened security, criminal investigations and convictions are “serving as deterrents”.

South African prisons have an occupancy rate of 149% and a judicial inspectorate report found prisoners had less than 1,2m2 in which to “eat, sleep and spend 23 hours of the day”. One consequence of overcrowding is that violent criminals might share beds with petty thieves, and young offenders are transported with older, more experienced criminals.

Said Gear: “Perpetrators [of rape] are supposed to be separated from the rest of the prison population immediately. Medical attention and post-prophylaxis should be provided to the victims, as well as access to legal services. That’s an ideal situation.”

In February Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour revealed in Parliament that in the 10 months up to January 2008, his department faced R89-million in lawsuits.

The department could not say whether any of these cases was similar to its out-of-court settlement, with a 29-year-old claiming R4-million after being raped in Westville prison and contracting HIV in 1998.

The Institute of Security Studies estimated as far back as 2002 that there was a 40% HIV prevalence among prison inmates.

Robin Palmer, associate law professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said there was a growing trend for the department to settle out of court in such matters. “The minister obviously doesn’t want to set a legal precedent because that will eventually bankrupt the department. Sexual violence is so rife in prisons that it is obvious the gangs are control everything and warders cannot guarantee personal safety,” Palmer said.

“At some point this may become a constitutional issue. Time spent in jail is about denying people their freedom, not their right to life.”

The Mail & Guardian established that the department will host a conference at the end of June on male rape in prisons. There are also plans to start an anti-rape programme at Pollsmoor Prison.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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