Prison assault figures are startling

The very high levels of violence in jails has been highlighted by the Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons, the statutory watchdog body on the treatment of prisoners, which reported 5 945 assaults involving prisoners in 2009.

The Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, based at the University of the Western Cape, pointed out the figures in the wake of last week’s Mail & Guardian report on a security crackdown on prisoners at a Kimberley jail in August last year.

A video of the crackdown, flighted in part on M&G Online, appears to show security personnel assaulting and humiliating protesting prisoners by stripping them and forcing them to bend down. Prisoners are shown as having set their beds alight.

The correctional services department’s annual report says there were 2 240 assaults in prison in 2009-2010, but the reform initiative’s project coordinator, Lukas Muntingh, said the actual number of assaults “is about double that”.

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.

Assaults by prisoners on one another or by prison staff on prisoners “happen on a daily basis,” he said. Citing figures for 2009 published by the inspectorate, he said there had been 3 756 assaults by inmates on one another and 2 189 assaults by correctional services staff on prisoners in that year. “This brings the total number of reported assaults to 5 945, about 16 violent incidents a day,” he said.

Meanwhile, this week the correctional services department said in a statement reacting to the M&G‘s report that the damage caused to state property by the prisoners in Kimberley amounted to more than R4,65­-million.

Security operations

It added that the report reflected “gross ignorance of security operations” and that it was “sensational” and those who leaked the internal prison video footage to the newspaper were “irresponsible”.

The video also shows a prisoner being beaten with batons by officials, who then leave him unattended. Paramedics eventually removed the injured prisoner on a stretcher.

In another clip a correctional services official drags an apparently bleeding prisoner across the floor and drops him in a corner, while officials enter the room and ignore him.

The department’s statement said: “The operation did not follow [a] Sunday school protest, but a dangerous riot of offenders, serving long prison terms for, among other things, murder, rape and brutality against innocent civilians.

“They continued to perpetuate crimes by destroying state property and placing officials and other offenders’ lives in danger.” The department said that “appropriate force” was used to subdue riotous offenders who were strip- searched as part of “normal operations to remove all illegal [items]/contraband that could be used to perpetuate criminal operations”.

It said that this did not involve human rights abuses but was “standard operating procedure in the administration of correctional services anywhere”. The reform initiative disagreed, saying that the video clip showed the “abuse of the inmates’ human rights”. Muntingh described the department’s attitude as “problematic” and said that its justification that the Kimberley crackdown followed a serious incident was “no excuse”.

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.

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Glenda Daniels
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