Fear, force and sex in Sun City

Prison warders at the Johannesburg “Sun City” jail have not received appropriate training to deal with the pervasive spread of rape and sexual violence in the prison. This is exacerbated by a dangerously low staff-to-inmate ratio and a dilapidated work environment. These conclusions are contained in the report In Their Boots, by Just Detention, an investigation into warders’ response to violence behind bars.

In 2010, the researchers of Just Detention interviewed 28 warders, six inmates and six prison managers about their response to violence in the prison. A recurring issue they discussed was their inability to appropriately prevent or address sexual violence between inmates.

Rape and sexual violence behind bars is a widespread problem, the warders and researchers say. How many inmates are affected, however, is unclear, as the department of correctional services (DCS) does not differentiate between sexual and other forms of violence in its reports.

The warders spoke about Obed, an awaiting trial inmate who initially complained that Albert, an older inmate, had stolen his clothes. Albert admitted that he had been “operating” with Obed, prison speak for sexual relations, or rape, depending on the perspective.

They transferred Albert – a known sexual predator – to a new communal cell, as all the single cells were full. According to the warders, it is common for new inmates to be “groomed” and manipulated by older inmates and they speculated that the sexual abuse of Obed might have been going on for longer than six months.


After the incident Obed confided in one of the officials that he felt as if his manhood had been taken away.

“What is it we’re going to say to Obed that will make him feel like he is a man again? I am not trained to do that,” a warder admitted.

The situation in the awaiting trial section of the prison where Obed and Albert were incarcerated is even worse than in the sentenced sections because there are no social workers or psychologists employed there.

Different policies
Awaiting trial sections of prisons are not governed by the same policies as the sentenced sections because the inmates are supposed to be there merely for the duration of their trials and are, therefore, still considered innocent. This lack of a policy framework is alarming, given the lengthy court delays that keep inmates in remand detention for years.

Equally alarming was the warders’ admission that they had no clear understanding of what the legally permitted minimum use of force entailed. Warders are legally only allowed to use minimum force, necessary to prevent greater harm. They complained of a lack of training and procedures on when to apply force, for example, such as when they are allowed to use their batons.

In Sun City prison, where gang violence is rife and where understaffing means that sometimes between four and 14 warders have to guard sections holding approximately 1 300 inmates, this is a worrying situation.

Researcher Sasha Gear said officers are not trained in alternative forms of conflict resolution or crisis diffusion. “This state of affairs generates fear among officers, demoralisation, and disenchantment with their leadership, and amounts to lack of comprehension of the system they are expected to implement.”

In the severely overcrowded awaiting trial section of Johannesburg prison, the general lack of a policy framework led to warders either shifting inmates to other cells or resorting to the illegal use of force.

Minimum force
The confusion about the definition of minimum force might well have caused a rise in inmate reports of the use of force against them. The annual reports of the judicial inspectorate for correctional services reflect a huge increase in the use of force in prisons, from three cases in 2010 to 193 cases in 2014.

“Sometimes when you approach them, you worry: ‘What about my security?’ … Sometimes I get violent towards them because I feel that there is no one helping me … The department uses us as a shield,” one warder explained.

The violence against inmates does not originate in a vacuum. South African prisons are notoriously dangerous and Sun City is known for its proliferation of prison gangs.

The recent stabbing of five warders at Drakenstein prison in the Western Cape point to the execution of a strict honour-based eye-for-an-eye code among gang members. According to the Times, the stabbing allegedly had to do with a “blood-spilling” ritual.

Warders in gang-riddled Mangaung prison in Bloemfontein went on a collective strike in 2013, when their complaints about their security fell on deaf ears. They had – to no avail – presented a list of 30 violent incidents to the prison management, ranging from stabbings, to hostage takings to the attempted rape of a female warder.

Prison gangs
Despite the presence of prison gangs such as the 26s, 27s and 28s as well as newer gangs such as the Air Force and Big Five in Sun City jail, warders said that attacks on officers were rare.

Gear said: “The officials who participated in the research said that such attacks ‘didn’t happen very often’, but my sense is that this was relative to the numerous reports they receive on inmate-on-inmate violence. Three had themselves been involved in such attacks. It was also clear that fear of attacks on themselves was pervasive, and part of their sense of vulnerability as a result of the dire inmate-staff ratios and gang rituals.”

Since the investigation was carried out in 2010, some improvements have been made. The DCS has adopted a nonbinding white paper on remand detention and a policy to address sexual abuse in correctional facilities, but both instruments have not yet been fully implemented.

The department is, however, confident that meaningful improvements have been made to the prison system since 1994.

“DCS has made significant strides from the inherited prison system prior to 1994, which need to be appreciated, although we also acknowledge that there is so much more to realise our ideals as we march confidently towards the 2030 vision of South Africa,” it said in an emailed response. “Among various other interventions, DCS is constantly evaluating, assessing and upgrading its working environment in line with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

The DCS revealed that it has endured understaffing issues but is investing significant amounts to adequately train new officials.

“As per the 2013-2014 annual report, as at March 31 2014, DCS had 44 234 posts on its approved establishment. DCS registered a vacancy rate of 5.4, in that of the 44 234 posts 41 825 posts were filled.

“For the period April 1 2013 to March 31 2014, R57.58-million was spent on training. DCS has developed the various training programmes to empower officials with the skills to perform their work effectively and efficiently.”

Ruth Hopkins is a journalist at the Wits Justice Project.

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