British security firm G4S, which runs Bloemfontein’s Mangaung prison, has denied lawyers access to a prisoner who claims to have been shot in the head with a rubber bullet by a warder.
The reason given by the prison is that the inmate, BM (he cannot be named), doesn’t know the lawyers who work for the Legal Resources Centre (LRC).
Several months ago, prisoner Captain Rampa contacted the Wits Justice Project about the plight of his friend and cellmate, BM.
Rampa wrote that on September 16 2013, BM had lost sight in his left eye as a result of being shot in the head with a rubber bullet. The Wits Justice Project has seen medical files and internal prison communications confirming these injuries.
The LRC is seeking damages from G4S and the department of correctional services (DCS) on behalf of 50 of their clients who have been subjected to electroshock, assault, antipsychotic medication and lengthy isolation in Mangaung, and has issued papers through the Pretoria high court to that effect.
Sayi Nindi, an LRC attorney, said: “Our clients have compelling cases of torture against G4S and the DCS. The harm they suffered completely goes against our Constitution. We hope the courts can grant them justice.”
Prisoners routinely assaulted
In the case of prisoner BM, it is the third time G4S has barred prisoners from accessing legal counsel.
In June 2014, attorneys with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies were turned away. A year ago lawyers with British law firm Leigh Day and South African attorney Egon Oswald were also denied access. Oswald is challenging this decision in the Pretoria high court, arguing that it violates South Africa’s Constitution.
In October 2013, the Wits Justice Project found that the prison’s emergency security team – warders trained to deal with emergency situations – routinely assaulted prisoners. Inmates, warders and other sources claim the team kicked, punched and electroshocked prisoners after dousing them with water.
Leaked video footage shot inside the prison showed a prisoner with no record of mental illness being forcibly injected, apparently with antipsychotic drugs. The LRC is representing 13 clients who allege they were forcibly injected with the drugs.
On September 16 2013, riots broke out and prisoners burned mattresses because of “maladministration and misadministration by G4S management and the untolerated [sic] system they are using against inmates … G4S management doesn’t consider our complaints,” Rampa wrote.
The emergency team was called and, according to Rampa, they fired rubber bullets at the rioting inmates.
No report two years after investigation
The department’s controller at the prison, Clement Motsapi, wrote an email to the prison’s head, Johan Theron, demanding that the incident be fully investigated.
He said that the question of the injury sustained by BM being consistent with the use of force that is permitted hadn’t been adequately answered. Legally, the team is only allowed to use minimum force to contain riots or violent prisoners.
Theron’s response refers to a “facial injury” sustained by BM.
A G4S letter to the department’s then acting national commissioner, Nontsikelelo Jolingana, mentions the “discharge of a firearm”, saying: “It is denied that either Captain Rampa or [BM] were injured in the manner described in your letter.”
BM’s medical files (copies of which the Wits Justice Project has) indicate that he sustained serious injuries to his left eye, left ear, nasal bridge and left shoulder.
“The left eye had no light perception,” the doctor on duty wrote.
On September 25 2013, Motsapi suspended Bennie van Aardt, the security manager who discharged the gun, Derrick de Klerk, the prison director responsible, and operations manager Anneke la Grange.
Zach Modise, the prison department’s national commissioner, was appointed head of Mangaung prison in 2013, when G4S lost control of the correctional facility, amid a spate of riots and the mass dismissal of 330 warders. One of the first decisions he took was to revoke the suspensions.
“During preparations for the handing of Mangaung Correctional Centre back to G4S, and based on information at the time, the said officials were requested to return to their operational duties,” department spokesperson Manelisi Wolela said earlier this year. “However, based on further investigations, a decision was taken to uphold their suspension from operational duties.”
Prison warders, however, say that the officials have resumed their operational duties.
The then prisons minister S’bu Ndebele, promised to “leave no stone unturned” when news of the alleged mass abuse surfaced in 2013. He allocated 30 days for the investigation. But now, more than two years later, the report still hasn’t been released.
In response, G4S released the following statement: “G4S is required to apply the conditions set out by the Department of Correctional Services with regards to legal representatives visiting their clients at Mangaung prison. The rules are very clear, and in this case lawyers acting for the Legal Resources Centre failed to complete the necessary forms correctly. We have pointed out the mistakes to them and as yet we have not received a response.
“Under the terms of the Correctional Services Act, all prisons in South Africa are authorised to use non-lethal incapacitating devices to maintain order in emergency situations. The Act sets out the specific terms for their use, and these are complemented by a detailed set of internal G4S guidelines. We are confident that in this case, we complied both with the Act and in line with our policies.”
This version of the article has been updated to include comment from G4S.
Ruth Hopkins is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project.