Prison isolates inmates

Inmates at this prison have been kept in "segregation" for up to 4 years (Photo: City Press)

Inmates at this prison have been kept in “segregation” for up to 4 years (Photo: City Press)

To see this article as it appeared in the print edition of City Press, click here.

To see this article as it appeared on the City Press website, click here.

Management at Free State prison might be flouting laws, writes Ruth Hopkins.

Inmates at Bloemfontein’s Mangaung Prison are being kept in solitary confinement for up to four years at a time.

But the prison’s management refuses to explain itself to the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, an office within the correctional services department run by the inspecting judge and tasked with monitoring conditions in South Africa’s prisons.

And now the inspectorate has written to it, demanding answers about this illegal practice.

A confidential 2009 government report – a copy of which City Press has seen – lists 62 cases of inmates at the prison who were detained in single cells without privileges, for periods ranging from two weeks to four years.

The report also reveals that two inmates were denied TB and HIV medication while in solitary confinement.

On a recent visit to the prison, City Press discovered the practice is still continuing.

Long-term solitary confinement is an unpleasant echo of the past, when political prisoners were regularly detained in single cells for years at a time.

PAC leader Robert Sobukwe was detained in a solitary cell on Robben Island for nine years.

Today, segregating inmates remains a common measure in South Africa’s prisons – but it is not allowed as a punishment.

Instead, it can be imposed if the prisoner requests it or a medical condition means isolation is necessary.

A prisoner can also be kept alone in a single cell if they are considered an escape risk, are perceived to be a threat to other inmates or it is believed they will be the targets of violence in a shared cell.

The segregation must be reported to the authorities if it lasts longer than seven days, and inmates in solitary confinement must be visited by a medical practitioner or psychologist every day during the isolation period.

From the 2009 report, it appears that Mangaung Prison’s management has ignored these requirements.

According to Koos Gerber, the spokesperson for the correctional services department, “heads of correctional centres are obliged to comply with these prescripts and where it is not done it would, in essence, be wrong”.

Mangaung Prison is run by British security firm G4S, after it signed a contract with government in 2000 to build and manage the facility.

The prison opened in 2001 and houses about 3 000 inmates.

On April 25 this year, the inspectorate contacted the prison’s management to ask for more information about the inmates who were segregated in 2009.

By law, prisons are obliged to provide this information to the inspectorate.

But G4S responded abruptly, saying: “A … concern is that these requests are mostly signed by administrative personnel, which raises the question if the inspecting judge is aware or in need of the information.

“This further raised the concern of who is really requesting the information and for what purposes the information is requested for.”

The reply infuriated the inspectorate, whose national manager of legal services, Umesh Raga, responded in a second letter, in which he wrote: “We are indeed flummoxed by such aspersions on the integrity of our staff and our mandate.”

The i, is employed and instructed by the correctional services department.

It is his job to monitor whether the prison complies with rules and regulations regarding detention.

Inmates say it was Motsapi who approved their placement in isolation. When questioned by the inspectorate the prison’s management said this was not segregation but “high care”.

But, according to the law, the inspecting judge as well as the department’s national commissioner must be notified of such decisions.

 Four years in solitary

On November 25 2005, Oupa Mabalane started what would be four years in solitary confinement. Sunlight filtered through a single, tiny window in his dark cell.

He was told by prison management that the isolation was for his own safety – he was apparently at risk of becoming a victim of gang violence, a legitimate reason for placing a prisoner in a single cell.

But the isolation dragged on.

Mabalane spent 23 hours each day in his cell, had barely any contact with other inmates and was not allowed to access newspapers or television.

He was not allowed to take part in any rehabilitation programmes.

“The isolation drove me insane. I was in constant mental pain and I tried to commit suicide with a razor blade in 2009.”

Still, he remained in his single cell.

Mabalane set fire to his cell and started holding prison staff hostage.

He was transferred to Kokstad Prison on November 6 2009, to a shared cell.

But then he was sent back to Mangaung Prison in March this year, and had been immediately placed in solitary confinement again.

“I was detained in a single cell again for 30 days,” he said.

Ishmael Mohlomi was detained in a single cell from November 22 2012 to April 22 this year.

Joseph Monaise was placed in isolation for what was supposed to be seven days because of his involvement in a hostage drama at the prison last November.

But, he said: “They assured me they would detain me in that cell for two years.”

He threatened to burn his cell and demanded an explanation from prison management. But he says none has been offered and he has been in isolation since November 7.

According to the prison’s controller, Clement Motsapi, the three had not been segregated. Instead, he said, they’d been placed under “high care”.

High care is subject to the same legal restrictions as solitary confinement.

Hopkins is a member of the Wits Justice Project.

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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