“Sun City is as far away from your comfort zone as you may ever come”

Two members of the Wits Justice project (WJP), Ananias Ndlovu and Miriam Mokoena, describe what it’s like going to visit an awaiting-trial detainee (ATD) – someone who has not been convicted – at Johannesburg Prison (Medium A).

Ananias Ndlovu writes:

I decided to visit Anele Pontshi, 22. Pontshi is one of the longest-serving ATDs at Sun City. He has appeared in court 97 times and spent five Christmases behind bars.

Of the 5-6 500 prisoners awaiting trial at Sun City’s medium A (designed to house 2 630), many have been held for more than two years without any conclusion to their trials.

Visiting an ATD at Sun City is – if you visit in the way that ordinary people do – very frustrating, irritating, difficult, and anxiety-provoking, even more so than speaking to him or her over the phone or seeing him/her in court.

All the woes of visiting Medium A start at the gate. If you have a car, then you are lucky. You can keep all your valuables safe. If you don’t, then you have to follow the routine.

First, I had to get into the visiting area. Before doing that, I had to leave my BlackBerry with someone I didn’t know, a person who promised to keep it safe, for only R5. I took my bag to the parcel counter where I was told that I was doing that at my own risk. I was given a paper numbered 47, meaning my bag was kept at shelf number 47. The parcel operator gave me a piece of paper where I had to write Pontshi’s prison number, name, my ID number and my address. The parcel operator was an inmate, wearing an orange prison uniform.

But as it turns out, this was the easiest part of visiting Pontshi. One cannot just visit ATDs at anytime. There is a well monitored schedule with no exceptions. All visits are divided according to the court appearance specifics of the ATDs.

On Monday only those who make their court appearances at Wynburg, Randburg and Midrand magistrate courts are allowed visitors. On Tuesday, those who make their court appearances at Westgate, Booysens, Hillbrow, Jeppe, Newlands, and Brixton magistrate courts are allowed visitors. Wednesday is high court, commercial Courts, WestGate Magistrate’s Court and Single Cell ATDs’ visitation day. On Thursday, the same applies for Protea, Lenasia, Kliptown, Orlando, and Meadowlands magistrate courts.

This can prove difficult for most visitors, most of whom do not know the protocol; some of whom who have traveled from far to visit family and friends. And without having the ATD’s name, prison number, and your own ID book, you are not let in.

Only two visitors are allowed per inmate. Parents, children, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, and colleagues cram together in order to see their loved ones. These hundreds of visitors have to pass all security checks, including a physical body search.

Women must be properly dressed, as must men. Food is closely monitored and you are even told how many chicken portions you are limited to. Spiced portions are not allowed. I watched as many visitors were stripped of their parcels. Most parcels have to be put in transparent plastic.

From the reception area to Medium A, where all ATDs are kept, is a walking distance. But you must use a skorokoro bus.

When we arrived at the visiting area, we were greeted by some rude and uncooperative staff members. Despite nearly two hours of delays, I was only allowed to see Pontshi for about 10 minutes only.  It is particularly difficult for those who travelled thousands of kilometres to see their loved ones for only 10 minutes. On top of that, because visits to ATDs are non-contact visits, everyone must talk through a glass partition via a microphone – but most microphones are not working; people cannot hear each other properly; and everyone is forced to scream.

At least I was able to see Pontshi. I spoke to him but it was not easy. But I was lucky to see him as some did not see those they came to visit. After the visit, we went back into the bus that took us back to the reception area.

Before I visited Pontshi, I have on occasion had the experience of visiting contact prisoners too. Visiting a contact inmate is more privileged than other visits, even though this means spending time with prisoners in a small cage-like visiting area. In these settings, some visitors have an opportunity to hug and kiss their spouses.

One may ask: “Why are ATDs not given that privilege of holding hands and sharing jokes with their loved ones?” ATDs have not yet been proven guilty by the state, though their living and visiting conditions are worse than those of convicted criminals.

Does this means that ATDs are being punished before even being found guilty?

Inescapably, this is the sad feeling with which one is left.

Miriam Mokoena writes:

The large signpost outside the institution reads “Johannesburg correctional centre”. For someone who has never been exposed to the world of prison, this may sound as if the people behind the walls are being rehabilitated so they can come out reformed. This is, it seems, not entirely the case.

Carolyn Raphaely and I visited a young man who has been awaiting trial for five years. The entrance is controlled by prisoners serving their sentences already. Looking at their tekkies and happy faces as they controlled the queues, I began to think that prison might not be as bad as I thought it was. I even mistook these men for workers who were merely dressed in prison uniform.

People milling around the reception area carried food and various parcels for their loved ones, the most popular being cigarettes. They all placed their parcels in transparent plastic bags.

After leaving all our belongings, including cellphones, in the car, we boarded an overloaded prison bus to the waiting area. Women and children waited patiently to get a chance to see their loved ones.  People from as far as Maputo were among those waiting. Regular visitors explained the procedures to those who were there for the first time.

The short time I spent waiting for the name of the gentleman we were visiting to be called was very awkward as I had nothing to touch or press, having been seperated from the familiar comforts of my cellphone and handbag. Sun City is as far away from your comfort zone as you may ever come.

Eventually, the name was called and we followed others to the visiting area. The small area was packed and visitors struggled to get parcels to the inmates. A man was told that the person he was looking for was not there but he insisted he had seen him.  Since ATDs are non-contact inmates, visitors struggled to talk to them because most of the microphones are not properly functioning.

Five minutes into our conversation with him, the man we were visiting was pushed away, without being given the privilege of finishing his sentece, because “time was up”. After much argumentation, we were given a second chance to talk to him, but only after testing out five different visiting spots looking for a working speaker. This time round he managed to finish his sentences and signalled to us to give a prison official our contact number.

Leaving the prison, I again glanced the words “correctional centre” sprawled against that gloomy sign. They did not have the same meaning that they had before I entered the facility.

I would not be far off in saying that the conditions under which ATDs exist is more likely to create criminals than to rehabilitate them. I do not condone acts that place people on the wrong side of the law, but I was touched by the plight of the ATDs at Sun City, who are yet to be proven guilty, and the visitors who have to battle incompetence and red tape simply to have a brief conversation with loved ones.

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

5 Responses to “Sun City is as far away from your comfort zone as you may ever come”

  1. Nomsa says:

    I totaly agree wit u,i hv a husband who was convicted for bank robbery!he was sentenced for 15years and being there for 5years now,he is in medium B,u arrieve 8am in de morning,ask for that paper to write the inmates info,(rude officers)what realy shocked me was?i was about to buy things for him at the tuckshop?as i were to buy(my turn)an officer(lady)told the inmate who sells at the tuckshop to make tea for her??wiles we were busy buying things for our loved ones!he left everything to make that tea?? When he was done he then came back to us!(indelelo)wait for the name to be called,get searched,things turned upside down,even you!ride the skorokoro bus,when u arrieve e med B,get searched again!wait in the waiting area for 4 to 5 hrs before being called in!when you get there being told ladies one side,men one side!(haaa kuyasentshezwa lapha),you get searched again before you go to your loved one! That is no place for people.

  2. Lesego mabane says:

    Well i get what u all are sayin,i visited a guy in medium c serving life sentence,well the treatment in med c is much better compared to med A and B,it was contact visit meaning i got to touch and talk to him for an hour,it was crowded yes but everyone was seated,the experience wasn’t bad

  3. Olwethu says:

    I have been there twice and am going there again in 3days time and i am really not looking forward to the dreadful procedure. The visitation red tape for those awaiting trial is just ridiculouse, its as good as being convicted already. Even though it means hope and a ray of sunshine to the person i’ll be going to see ,it is really not a pleasent experience. what can one do though our loved ones are in there and we cant abondon them because they made a bad choice. its just unfortunate that these supposed ‘correctional facilities’ are diminishing and undignifying our fathers, brothers etc. Every evening when i speak to my boyfriend Richard who is awaiting trial and hear how he complains about the conditions, the environment, the gangs, the struggle for survival i just break down and cry because he doesnt deserve such, no one until proven guilty deserves such. Something needs to be done. our loved ones are dying like flies while still awaiting trial, they are being raped, turned into men that they never thought they would be and into doing things they’d never do, they are being turned into criminals instead of being rehabilitated
    and forced into gangs just to survive- its disgusting ,its heart breaking. Olwethu

  4. Mandy says:

    I was in ATD in the women’s prison, I have a lot to say about my experience however I would like to know if the anyone knows the correct number for Suncity women’s correctional facility? I have tried numbers on web and no answer, please help!

  5. J.J says:

    heartbreaking,especially if a person is sentenced to life imprisonent in those conditions,im shocked and heartbroken,never been so traumatised in my life,dont know how long it will take for me to calm down.

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