Sexual assault in jail is common and brutal

In October last year,  McIntosh Polela, who was then the spokesperson for the Hawks, infamously tweeted about convicted murderer Molemo "Jub Jub" Maarohanye: "I trust that Jub Jub's supporters gave him a jar of Vaseline to take to prison."

Polela, who was suspended weeks later, echoed a general sentiment: that rape in prison goes without saying – and is, in fact, just part of being in prison.

Although occurrences of rape and sexual assault between inmates, or by warders on inmates, are historically entrenched in our prison system, civil society groups say that a glimpse at the Correctional Services Act shows that the prison authorities have no plans to prevent it, no official policy to deal with it and no training for the warders on how to respond to it.

Groups such as the Sonke Gender Justice Network and Just Detention International (JDI) have been left with the responsibility of fixing the problem, from monitoring condom provision in prisons and researching the prevalence of sexual abuse to training warders and providing victims with support. The most current civil society initiative is a collaboration between JDI, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and department of correctional services (DCS) officials to create the Framework to Address Sexual Abuse of Inmates in DCS Facilities, a document that outlines how to prevent, detect, respond to and monitor sexual violence in prison.

However, since October 2010, when the document was handed over to the management in correctional services, the groups involved have struggled to determine its location in the department's bureaucracy.

Sasha Gear, director of JDI South Africa, said the last she'd heard was that the document was in the office of correctional services commissioner Tom Moyane. The Mail & Guardian was not able to confirm this, and did not receive a response from his office.

Koos Gerber, media liaison officer for the department, said the policy framework on sexual violence is at "the final stage of consultation with the branch heads in the department that deals with core business".

Regrettably common
"Once finalised, it will be presented to the national commissioner who, in consultation with the ministry, will decide on the final intervention detail, which will then provide the mandate for implementation."

Meanwhile, Emily Keehn, manager of the prisons programme at Sonke, said her organisation was providing training to some correctional services employees on how to address sexual violence, fulfilling a role that should be played by the department.

In August, when Sonke and JDI launched a booklet on training warders about sexual abuse in Cape Town, the inspecting judge for correctional services, Vuka Tshabalala, who is responsible for monitoring human rights abuses in prisons, appeared to sleep through the discussion.

Asked for comment, national manager of legal services at the inspectorate Umesh Raga replied: "As a ­matter of fact the inspecting judge had travelled from Durban previously and maintained a busy ­schedule; ­notwithstanding that he accompanied a team [of officials].

"The journalist's observations of the inspecting judge purportedly sleeping and snoring in the normal meaning is not true. The inspecting judge suffers from a medical condition which symptomises as such. Same does not affect his faculties."

No official research has been done on sexual abuse in prisons on a national level. The recent framework document was created based on research carried out by JDI.

The information that exists comes from work by civil society and independent researchers.

For example, Lukas Muntingh, prisons expert director of the University of the Western Cape Law Clinic, found that sexual assault in prison is "regrettably common".

Highest bidder
Gear found that certain characteristics make prisoners more vulnerable to rape, such as a small physique and good looks, not receiving visitors or coming from a poor family.

The issue was brought to the public's attention by default in 2006 during the Jali commission of inquiry into corruption in the department, which described sexual violence as a "horrific scourge … that plagues our prisons", the findings of which made the front page of newspapers around the country.

During the commission's hearings it emerged that prison warders sold young and vulnerable inmates to the highest bidder. The commission also reported that victims of sexual abuse were treated with a lack of sympathy or sensitivity and were often treated as the perpetrators if they complained. On some occasions, prisoners were forced by other inmates to perform oral sex on warders in exchange for privileges.

The findings also showed that if prisoners complained and were sent to the prison's clinic, the nurses rarely showed empathy and would merely write down the complaint without taking any further action.

The latest Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services annual report, which outlines the state of the country's prisons, ranging from healthcare and cell overcrowding – which they estimated at 200% – showed that 17% of prisoners go without seeing doctors for an entire month. The report also says that the shortage of doctors at prisons means that there is a lack of post-rape treatment and tests for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.

'Hier is die gemors'
Ross Abrahams*, a former inmate of Allandale Prison outside Cape Town, experienced these problems first-hand. He met the M&G at his current workplace, in a Cape Town hospital, and described how on his first night in prison 15 years ago, while awaiting trial for murder, he was raped by two men after a warder pushed him into a cell of 70 men and told the inmates: "Hier is die gemors [Here is the rubbish]."

Abrahams waited for two months from the first incident before he could see a psychologist and over the next 10 years of his life in prison the abuse continued. He was made to stand naked in front of gang members, who would have anal sex with him and make him perform fellatio on them. When he complained to a warder he was ridiculed and when he saw the nurse, she told him to get used to it. Abrahams contracted HIV, which he only discovered after repeatedly requesting an HIV/Aids test over a two-year period, and he was never given antiretrovirals. His story is far from unique.

Welcome Witbooi, who was released from prison five months ago after serving 13 years for murder, told the M&G the only way he could avoid rape in prison was by stabbing a warder, and thereby earning his stripes to join the 28s gang.

Witbooi, who now works at Sonke, was a teacher before prison, which was good for him because he was useful to other inmates who could not write letters or fill in forms.

Young, good-looking boys are often used as sexual objects to please gang leaders, he says. "If a general feels like he's missing his wife or his girlfriend, he will usually call for three or four boys to come up to please him," Witbooi says. "[The department] turns a blind eye. Warders say: 'This is prison, deal with it.'"

R4m in damages for 'rape'
It has been six years since the Jali commission's findings were released and, at the end of last year, Muntingh told Parliament that it was still unknown which of the commission's recommendations had been implemented.

Correctional services' annual reports, including the latest one, which was released late last year, do not disaggregate statistics for "assault" into sexual offences,  though organisations including Sonke and JDI have been emphasising the importance of this ­disaggregation for years. This means that if a rape in prison is reported to the authorities it will disappear under the general headline of "assault", which results in a lack of statistics. What the annual report did show, however, was that, in the past year, the department paid out more than R4-million in damages to inmates for "rape".

The last government research that was done on rape in prison was done through the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services in 2007. The survey involved 750 prisoners, 7% of whom said they'd received unwanted sexual attention in prison, 25% said that sexual violence occurs "frequently" and nearly half reported that sexual abuse happens "sometimes", "often" or "very often".

Gear says that 7% is likely to under-represent the scale of the problem because of the stigma involved, but it is substantial even if not, and the point that victimised inmates are usually raped over and over again is critical. "They are mostly in situations where they are locked up with their perpetrators pretty much constantly. [They] see them every day and are expected to be constantly available to them for sex."

She says that there are also numerous reasons why prisoners would resist reporting rape to warders or nurses, or even to independent agencies. "In addition to the immense fear of further and other forms of victimisation that most survivors carry, the stigma attached to men who've been raped, for example, is magnified in prison and sees many victims suffering in shame and utter silence about what has happened to them."

Muntingh says that when the department was confronted in Parliament about sexual abuse – which occurs once every two months during submissions made by Sonke and other non-governmental organisations to the parliamentary portfolio committee on correctional services – they are "generally evasive".

Societal attitude
"This is one of the oldest problems in the prison system and yet the department sidelines it," he says. "One can speculate that ­sexual ­violence forms part of the gang ­system, and the gangs fulfil a ­governance function in a perverted way. So [department] officials are aware of what's happening, but they let things slip by.

"The societal attitude to male rape in prisons is that 'you're an offender, so you get what you deserve and you don't have a right to complain'."

And that, he says, needs to change if attitudes in Parliament are to change. Gerber said the assumption that the department has no policy on ­sexual violence "is not true".

"The Correctional Services Act, as amended on several occasions, and the White Paper on Corrections in South Africa provides the framework for the management of operations within a human rights culture. All staff members, and specifically operational managers, are aware of the need to treat human beings with dignity to ensure that we live up to what we strive for. A management protocol is in place that must be followed when an offender complains of having been sexually abused.

"The number of people raped in correctional centres cannot be determined for certain because of the possibility that victims might not always want to register incidences of sexual abuse," says Gerber. "Official figures show that 81 complaints of sexual assault were reported during the first 11 months of this financial year [April 2012 to February 2013]."

*Not his real name

Ilham Rawoot is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Pandemic-induced human rights violations a double tragedy to humanity

The conflation of human rights violations and a pandemic leave the most vulnerable marginalised. Equitable and democratic societies are needed to fight against this

Speaking out against D’banj

After accusing the Afrobeats superstar of rape, Seyitan Babatayo was arrested

Raising men to handle romantic rejection can diminish violence against women

The problem is that men see a break-up as a challenge to their masculinity and would rather get even than get over it

Nine months later and still no suspects in Eastern Cape village rape and murder case

Aviwe Wellem’s violent death shook a village in the Eastern Cape, but the DNA results are still not back and no one has been arrested.

Editorial: We must treat GBV as a pandemic

It has been easier to get someone arrested for breaking lockdown regulations than to get the authorities to respond to calls from women who are being beaten to death

Remembering the cruelty of strongman Nkurunziza and his regime

Burundi’s president was a cruel and tyrannical leader under whom no one was safe, not even schoolchildren

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday