Prison company stalls court actions

Pain: Gershwin Coutts shows bruises sustained from beatings he claims were inflicted by guards at Mangaung prison in Bloemfontein in 2013.

Pain: Gershwin Coutts shows bruises sustained from beatings he claims were inflicted by guards at Mangaung prison in Bloemfontein in 2013.

British multinational security company G4S wants the high court in Pretoria to suppress evidence that could reveal widespread torture and abuse of prisoners at its Mangaung prison in Bloemfontein.

G4S has demanded that the medical files of inmates are not to be made public. The inmates allege that the multinational tortured and injected them against their will with antipsychotic drugs. The medical files could contain evidence of these transgressions.

G4S still holds the contract to run Mangaung prison, despite being forced to hand over control to the state for 10 months in 2013.

That year a Wits Justice Project investigation into the prison revealed widespread use of electroshocking, assaults, forced medication and lengthy isolation of inmates.

After the exposé, the department of correctional services (DCS) announced an investigation into the allegations and promised to release a report within weeks.
The department has refused to release the report or to give reasons for not releasing it, despite numerous requests.

In 2015 the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand brought a freedom of information case against the prisons department to demand the release of the report.

The department has ignored the court case, which, under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, means that the judge would have to rule in the department’s absence.

But in 2017, just before that could happen, G4S asked to be added to the case as an interested party. G4S’s first demand in this interlocutory procedure was that the court should not order the disclosure of the medical files unless the hearing is in camera.

G4S also wants its affidavit to remain confidential because, according to court documents, it contains “confidential information pertaining to medical records, and/or names and/or other personal details of employees of G4S, certain policies followed by G4S … and commercially sensitive information relating to G4S”.

But the Promotion of Access to Information Act provides for the release of information by the department with redacted personal details. G4S has not responded to questions about why it wants the court to review the files behind closed doors. It has previously said it is contractually bound to refer all media questions to the department.

Logan Maistry, spokesperson for the department, responded to a list of detailed questions by saying: “DCS confirms that this was an interlocutory application, brought by G4S. DCS did not participate in this interlocutory application, and will abide by the decision of the court. We await the court decision.”

Yet in a separate civil case that the G4S inmates started against the company, aimed at securing compensation for the alleged suffering they have endured, the company claimed it was not in possession of the medical files, adding that it was not the company’s responsibly to get the information.

The company demanded that the inmates provide it with the files. In an email exchange between G4S’s lawyers at Norton Rose and the inmates’ lawyers at the Legal Resources Centre, Hannes Marais of Norton Rose wrote: “It is not for our client to obtain the requested information from third parties.” The third party he was referring to is Faranani Healthcare, the medical corporation under whose watch inmates were allegedly forcibly injected with antipsychotic drugs and electroshocked.

In 2013 and 2014, the department put together a task team consisting of top-level officials who were to investigate the allegations of electroshocking, the unlawful use of violence, suspicious deaths in the prison and a host of other irregular issues.

Their work was highlighted in the department’s magazine, Mangaung: Keeping it Tight. According to this publication, the task team interviewed inmates, accessed medical files and scrutinised other records at the prison. In one interview a researcher claimed there were many irregularities at the prison’s pharmacy.

After a year, the department issued a report with preliminary findings that was sent to G4S. The company and shareholders to the prison contract drafted a response to these findings and this document was leaked to the Wits Justice Project. In the report the company mentioned repeatedly it was attaching the medical files of inmates.

The medical records were not part of the leaked report, but it clearly indicated the company was in possession of the inmates’ medical files, which it shared with the department.

Three independent sources at the department, who did not want to be named, claimed that the department intentionally “disappeared” evidence of the allegations of torture and forced medication. The department failed to respond to this allegation, despite repeated requests.

Zach Modise, the former national commissioner of the department, led the task team’s investigation. In 2017, just before he retired, he was accused of corruption and defying requests from the treasury relating to a department tender with the company Fence & Gates, which has a contract with the G4S-run prison.

Inmates at Mangaung prison have repeatedly tried get their medical files from Faranani Healthcare, which runs the prison hospital and pharmacy.

One inmate, who fears retribution if he gives his name, said: “It’s very difficult to access your medical files. The prison management told me it is confidential and therefore I need to go through a legal representative, which I can’t afford.”

The judge is expected to rule shortly on G4S’s request to file affidavits and hear arguments in camera about whether medical files should be released by the department.

G4S declined to comment on this story.

  • Private prisons were built with a view to addressing unacceptable levels of prison overcrowding. Kutama Sinthumule prison in Makhado is run by the American GEO group and G4S runs Mangaung prison.

The prisons cost the state about R800-million a year to run, which is about 5% of the department’s budget. The government planned to privatise a further four prisons, but in 2011 the then minister of correctional services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, abruptly reversed that decision, following a policy review.

She said: “We are determined that the current system of milking the resources of the state and abdicating the state role to run correctional centres should be reviewed and done away with.”

Ruth Hopkins is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project

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