The department of correctional services has reopened a prison gutted in a massive fire two years ago – before restoring it and despite wardens raising serious safety concerns.
The Glencoe prison in northern KwaZulu-Natal, near Dundee, was closed after the May 2015 fire. Almost 1 300 inmates and 150 wardens were sent to neighbouring prisons.
The public works department warned at the time that not only did the damaged parts of the prison have to be rebuilt, but the rest of the ageing structure also had to be renovated to get it “up to standard”.
Late last year, the department of correctional services awarded a R21‑million contract for the renovation of “48 houses for Glencoe”.
Last month, although minimal construction had taken place, wardens were instructed to report back for duty and some 100 prisoners were to be transferred back to Glencoe. About 50 wardens objected, raising a raft of concerns – mainly relating to security. They later approached the Pietermaritzburg high court in a bid to halt the order.
Represented by the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), wardens argued that the working conditions at the prison were not safe.
The KwaZulu-Natal Popcru chairperson, Jeff Dladla, speaking to the Mail & Guardian last week, said the visitors’ centre, the kitchen and the administration blocks had been affected by the fire, adding that some cells had been converted to accommodate the damaged structures.
“We were surprised when we were told that the prison was being reopened without being renovated,” Dladla said, adding that the union had then gone to conduct an in-loco inspection.
“It is not our duty to say the jail can’t function but ours is to make sure that our members are safe in their working environment – and that’s why we went to court.”
Three months after the fire, the department of public works told Parliament that the “structure was old” and said previous concerns of fires “had not been properly taken care of”. The prison was built in 1977.
“Therefore, the work [was] not only to rebuild what had been destroyed, but had also to ensure the rest of the structure was up to standard. The sense was that the client [correctional services] was in approval of the plan, and hopefully by the end of November the contractor would be on site,” public works told Parliament in 2015.
A prison insider, who asked not be identified, said only the fencing had been completed. The urgent matter was heard in the Pietermaritzburg high court recently, where an interim order was granted. Judge Ramasamy Chetty ruled that the wardens should return to the prison but must not perform any duties on “Courtyard Unit C”, until certification by the Endumeni municipality or the department of labour “stating that the working environment is safe and without risk to the health of the employees”.
Courtyard Unit C, which was under construction, consists of a visitors’ centre and cell blocks. The area, wardens said, was “outside the facility and … poses an even greater risk of escape and threat to … [wardens’ lives]”.
In court papers, the wardens say the section of the building that was not burned down had been made into an improvised centre. The reception area, which houses officials that grant access in and out of the facility, is located under four industrial geysers and is soaked in water.
Other concerns raised by Popcru were that there was no hospital, storage facilities, kitchen or telephone lines in the centre.
“There is no hospital at Glencoe as it was located on [sic] the section that burned down. It is not immediately clear how the healthcare of the offenders will be catered for if this facility is reopened in its current state … The dishing area has no roof; food will be exposed to dust from the mine sites and bacteria. The dishing area poses danger of officials being attacked and inmates escaping,” the union said. Glencoe, they argued, “as it stands, poses a serious threat to the lives of officials and a great possibility of inmates escaping”.
Correctional services spokesperson Logan Maistry said the delays in the renovation of the prison were due to a lack in funds, “specifically for emergency infrastructure repairs”.
“To this end, the allocation of funds for the refurbishment … could only be factored in the current financial year (April 1 2017 to March 31 2018) and the department of public works accordingly appointed a contractor,” he said.
Asked why the department had instructed wardens to return for duty despite the centre not being fixed, he said this was to “manage the challenge of overcrowding … Parts of the Glencoe Correctional Centre, not affected by the fire, will have to be utilised. The 17 cells currently being utilised were never affected by the fire.”
He denied that there was no water and electricity, saying these had been restored. In court papers, the departments said there was a medical facility, but Popcru said this was nothing more than “a school sickroom”.
“The areas affected, as well as not affected, by the fire are clearly demarcated. The areas affected by the fire are not in use,” Maistry said.
Responding to safety concerns raised by Popcru, the department said unions had been addressed. The renovations were expected to be completed in the 2018-2019 financial year, “due to budgetary constraints”.