/ 1 April 2011

Prison brutality caught on video

Video surveillance footage shot in the new Kimberley prison and leaked to the Mail & Guardian appears to show prison security personnel assaulting prisoners and making them bend over after stripping them naked in an apparent bid to humiliate them.

The video also appears to show prisoners being tear-gassed — the M&G could not confirm the nature of the white haze visible on the tape, but prison sources insist it was teargas.

The footage, shot by the prison’s closed-circuit TV system on August 3 last year, has been forwarded to the chairperson of Parliament’s correctional services committee, Vincent Smith.

The M&G has gained exclusive access to surveillance footage taken inside the Kimberley Prison, showing beatings and the humiliation of prisoners at the hands of warders.

Warning: Disturbing footage

Prison sources claimed that the treatment was meted out to prisoners after they complained about their living conditions, particularly the bread they were given, and that the action was about “showing who is in charge”.

Three senior officials are shown at various stages during the video. Correctional service department officials identified them as Kimberley area commissioner Joe Joseph, the head of prisons in Kimberley, Mafumani Kosana, and the Free State/Northern Cape regional head of correctional services, Gustav Wilson.

But Zach Modise, the correctional services commissioner for the Free State and Northern Cape at the time of the video and now deputy national commissioner of correctional services, said that the footage had been shot during a “serious incident” in which prisoners took two male officials and five female officials hostage and prison mattresses were set alight.

The “alleged perpetrators and instigators”, who were complaining about transfers, inadequate food and ill-treatment by officials, were forcibly removed from the burning unit to the prison’s segregation unit.

A subsequent investigation ordered by Modise found that “intimidation, gross negligence and poor as well as nonexistent management were some of the causative factors on the side of officials”.

But he said the surveillance footage provided to him by the investigating team showed no human rights abuses or that prisoners had been stripped naked or gassed.

He asked the M&G to send him its copy of the footage so that he could “establish the facts and take appropriate action against the perpetrators”.

“I must assure you that the department is committed to rooting out human rights abuses,” he said.

Among other scenes, the video shows:

  • Section K11, cell 3 (12.14pm): The room appears to be filled with fumes; an inmate is holding his face. The prisoners appear to have towels wrapped around their necks (which sources said indicated an impending fight). Armed officials come into the cells and apparently order prisoners to undress; the prisoners strip naked. At 1.41pm naked prisoners bend over after apparently being ordered to do so by officials, who can be seen.
  • Courtyard (12.15pm): Mattresses are shown burning.
  • Cell 2: (12:59pm) A prisoner is shown being pursued by baton-wielding security personnel who surround him and appear to beat him. Police arrive followed by paramedics, who place the prisoner on a stretcher and remove him. An official throws an object in the direction of the cell. Prisoners run out of the cell as mayhem erupts. An official drags an apparently injured prisoner across the floor, leaving what appears to be a trail of blood, and drops him in a corner. A number of other officials enter the room, ignore the injured man and leave without attending to him. Medics arrive and remove the prisoner.

Departmental sources told the M&G that some correctional services officials were conducting a witch-hunt to find those responsible for leaking the video.

Smith confirmed on Wednesday this week that he had received a copy of the video from the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru).

“You are assuming that nothing has happened [since Parliament received the video footage]. We visited Kimberley after this incident. We raised the issue in Parliament. There was an undertaking by the department that there would be an investigation,” he said.

Smith insisted that protesting prisoners had burned the mattresses in their cells and that the destruction of state property could not be condoned.

“Regardless of their grievances — they were complaining about the bread — you can never condone this violence against state property.”

Asked about the tear-gassing and assault of prisoners apparently shown on the video, he said: “We worry about abuse by inmates against one another but it is more worrisome when assault happens by officials against inmates. If they were tear-gassed and assaulted, we condemn it.

“We did engage with the department. We were unhappy with the action taken — the warnings given were not commensurate with what happened. We want to look at the policies of the department but as the portfolio committee we can’t micro-manage correctional services.”

Joseph and Wilson declined to comment, saying that Modise would respond to the M&G‘s questions.

Kosana, now regional coordinator of performance and monitoring in the Free State and Northern Cape, based in Bloemfontein, said he would like to see the video and had “nothing to lose from telling the truth”.

“I was head of prisons at the time. No one was assaulted. I do know of a case of arson against the prisoners,” he said.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre’s. www.amabhungane.co.za.