Following the third hostage drama since the inception of the privately run Mangaung Correctional Centre in 2000, the department of correctional services announced on Wednesday that it would take over the management of the prison.
The acting national commissioner of correctional services, Nontsikelelo Jolingana, said this was because G4S, the private contractor that has a 25-year contract to run the prison of behalf of the department, "has lost effective control of the facility".
Jolingana confirmed at a media briefing in Bloemfontein that it is likely the interim department of correctional services management team will deploy correctional services officers to replace the unqualified staff who are working at the prison.
The prison dismissed 330 warders recently after an unprotected strike, after which it appointed uncertified staff, which is unlawful.
Jolingana said: "We noted with concern … that the contractor continues to use uncertified staff."
The correctional facility has been rocked by a string of violent riots, strikes and stabbings.
On October 2, a female warder was dragged into a cell by four inmates. A police special task force team freed the woman after a 13-hour ordeal. The incident was followed by several serious assaults on warders.
In 2000, the government entered into a public-private partnership with G4S to construct, maintain and run Mangaung prison in Bloemfontein.
Contractual pressure was viewed as a strong incentive for the private company to perform well, but the slow descent into chaos at the prison indicates the opposite might be true: it provides a strong incentive to cover up trouble in order to avoid fines.
Andy Baker, president of G4S Africa, spoke to the media at OR Tambo International Airport the day after the most recent hostage drama, claiming that the violence was being fuelled by outside forces and that there were links between the unrest and the recently dismissed warders.
"The Mangaung Correctional Centre has an impeccable track record in maintaining the safety of inmates and employees," he said.
But early last month, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) presented G4S with a list of 30 violent incidents towards warders that have taken place at the maximum security prison since 2004, ranging from rape and stabbings to assault and hostage-taking.
Baker said the list was "inaccurate". The regional office of the department for correctional services, however, confirmed all incidents were reported to that office. Moreover, the department has served G4S with 29 financial penalties for the violence that erupted in the prison since September 14, totalling a reported R1.44-million.
It is not the first time the prison's management has accused others of fuelling conflict and inciting violence among inmates.
On November 2 2009, prison warders Pule Moholo and Dehlazwa Mdi arrived at work at about 7.30am. In the Broadway unit, where the single cells of the prison are located, they handed out breakfast to the 65 inmates. Twenty prisoners were taking part in a hunger strike to protest against the prison conditions, so their meals remained untouched. After breakfast, Moholo and Mdi proceeded to take the prisoners out – handcuffed and in groups of four – for a shower and then exercise.
"At that time, a very dangerous group of inmates was locked up in segregation in Broadway," Moholo recounted in a recent interview.
"We had heard they were planning a violent attack and we had written a security information report to the management, notifying them of this. The management told us to cuff them at all times, but they did not address the situation. At night, they would all beat their doors and windows at the same time. It was very scary."
When Moholo thought he had locked up all prisoners in the exercise yard, he went to the work station to make a phone call.
"Suddenly, I heard footsteps. I looked around and saw 11 inmates running towards me. I went into a state of shock."
The inmates had found a key in the door of the yard and had freed themselves. They overpowered Moholo, cut his wrist with broken glass, grabbed Mdi and another warder, handcuffed them and pushed them into an exercise cage.
"Some of the inmates said: 'We just want a transfer out of this prison. Don't worry, we won't hurt you,'" said Mdi. "But others disagreed and suggested that they should stab our eyes out or rape us."
The inmates wanted a transfer to a government-run prison because most of them were being held in illegal isolation in the Broadway unit, in some cases for years. Moholo had to deal with the wrath of the disgruntled inmates: "I was sure they were going to kill me."
Their ordeal ended after 16 hours when a specialised police unit came in and freed the warders.
Immediately after his release, Moholo was taken to the prison hospital, where he was told not to talk to anyone, especially the media. The nurses then gave him an injection. "After that moment, I do not recall a thing," he said.
G4S took disciplinary action against him for gross negligence in performing his duties.
During the hearing, there was no evidence presented that Moholo handed the keys to the inmates, or that they even belonged to him. Yet Moholo was found guilty.
When Moholo took his case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in October 2010, his Popcru representative arrived late and the CCMA ruled that he should be dismissed, without offering him an opportunity to defend himself.
According to a confidential government report seen by the Wits Justice Project, the prison also accused a department of correctional services official, Tatolo Setlai, of orchestrating the hostage situation. An internal investigation found that all allegations against Setlai were baseless.
On October 4, G4S announced it was hiring Setlai as an operational advisor. Baker wrote in a press statement: "His experience and know-ledge of Mangaung Correctional Centre will bolster G4S's operational management cadre at this time."
G4S declined to comment. The department of correctional services said it could not comment on the relationship between G4S and its employees.
Ruth Hopkins is a journalist for the Wits Justice Project
Controversy stalks global security employer
The British-Danish security firm G4S is the largest employer quoted on the London stock exchange, with operations in 125 countries. It employs 620000 people worldwide, 112000 of them in Africa, and delivers a wide variety of services, ranging from cash transport, events management, port and maritime security to fire services. It runs prisons worldwide.
G4S has also been the centre of controversies worldwide.
In 2004, Gareth Myatt (15) died at the G4S-run Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre at the hands of a G4S guard after being restrained. The guard was later promoted to being safety, health and environmental manager of G4S Children’s Services.
In 2010, an Angolan deportee, Jimmy Mubenga, also died after being restrained by G4S guards. He collapsed in a plane while being deported and after having been restrained by three G4S guards accompanying him. He later died in a hospital.
In 2004, immigration detainees under the watch of a G4S-run Port Philip prison in Australia were denied water, food and access to toilets during a seven-hour bus ride. One detainee is said to have resorted to drinking his own urine. G4S was fined $500000 for this misconduct.
Also at Port Philip, an Aboriginal leader died in the back of a G4S prison van in 2008. He succumbed to heatstroke after being driven 360km in an enclosed van without an air conditioner in 50°C heat.
G4S went on to lose further credibility in 2012 after failing to supply enough staff for the 2012 London Olympics. Then chief executive Nick Buckles admitted their reputation was in tatters.
Controversially, G4S also provides services and equipment to Israeli prisons, checkpoints, the so-called Apartheid Wall and the Israeli police. – Kyla Herrmannsen