“Assault, torture of inmates rife in prisons nationwide”

Warder-on-inmate violence appears to be widespread. (Photo: Stock Xchng)

Warder-on-inmate violence appears to be widespread. (Photo: Stock Xchng)

(published in The Star print and online editions, 18 January 2013).

THE ASSAULT and torture of prisoners is part of a pervasive pattern in what appears to be a nationwide epidemic of warder-on-inmate violence.

It is occurring in prisons from Mafikeng to Mangaung, from Diepkloof to Durban, from Port Elizabeth to Pollsmoor and from Grootvlei to Groenpunt.

Rooigrond prison inmate John Banda, for example, was shot by a warder with a rubber bullet inside a Mangaung prison cell in 2009 after returning from the exercise yard to find other inmates had set his cell alight.

“The securities (sic) were shooting in the street (corridor). They locked eight of us in a cell. I tried to tell the warder* I wasn’t involved with the burning, but he wouldn’t listen and threw teargas under the door.

“He put the nose of his gun through the peephole and shot me under my navel. Another warder* pushed me against the door frame and shocked me twice with a shield.

“While I was lying on the floor, a security* beat me in the face with the back of his gun, assaulted and kicked me. Then they took us where the CCTV cameras can’t see you, tied our hands behind our backs, sprayed us with fire extinguishers and kicked us.”

Banda was taken to the prison hospital and operated on before being locked in isolation cells for three days, without being charged with any offence. He has the medical records to prove that a bullet left “a 12cm-long tunnel” in his abdomen.

In a country where torture is currently not a crime, stories like Banda’s are not unique.

This culture of violence and impunity among prison officials is exacerbated by the fact that the Correctional Services Act permits the use of restraint mechanisms such as electronically activated stun belts, electric shock shields, leg irons, belly chains and batons.

In addition, the Correctional Matters Amendment Bill does not deal with a key aspect of detainees’ experience – the use of force by correctional officials or their training in the use of restraint equipment.

The legislation permits the use of internationally condemned equipment that can      be employed deliberately to violate inmates’ rights.

The infamous tonfas, donkey piel or baton, widely accepted as having a legitimate law enforcement function, can easily be abused in the absence of regulations governing its use. For example, when a blunt force soft-tissue head injury is recorded as the cause of death, it’s often consistent with baton abuse.

“Warders regularly complain that they don’t feel confident using batons because they’re not trained to distinguish between minimum and maximum force,” noted Just Detention International’s Sasha Gear.

Airport heist accused Uakarajee Maundu, 40, released on bail in May last year from Medium A’s awaiting-trial section of Johannesburg Prison, said: “Every day I saw warders beating up inmates for no apparent reason.”

According to Sbu Mntambo, a former inmate of KwaZulu-Natal’s Eshowe Correctional Centre, the most common torture method was beating inmates under their feet with the tonfas.

“Even so, the strip searches were the very worst thing that happened to me inside. The warders made us strip naked and lie on the wet concrete floor in a long chain.

“You were forced to have someone’s head in your arse and your head in someone else’s arse. If you raised your head, they’d hit you with a tonfas.”

Similar search methods employed during prisonwide mass assaults by warders using shock shields at Port Elizabeth’s St Albans Prison resulted in former inmate Bradley McCallum successfully prosecuting South Africa at the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

“At Mangaung,” Banda recalls, “warders often called the special ‘securities’ who came with dogs, shock shields and guns. They made you take off your clothes and wet you – the shock is much more powerful when you’re wet… They wore balaclavas so you couldn’t see their faces.”

The Wits Justice Project (WJP) has received similar reports from prisons around the country.

l Raphaely is a member of the WJP, which investigates miscarriages of justice.

* Warders’ names are known to the WJP.

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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.

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