A tour of ‘Sun City’ Women’s Prison

KYLA HERRMANNSEN

Wits Justice Project recently went on a tour of the Women’s Prison based at Johannesburg Prison. The prison, better known as ‘Sun City’, currently houses around 1000 female offenders. We visited the prison in order to assess its library – Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele has recently launched a ‘Reading for Redemption’ project in which inmates are encouraged to read, with the incentive being that more reading  will ultimately equate to time being taken off their jail sentence. This project also takes place in Brazil.

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We began our tour, escorted by Naomi Nkaiseng (who heads up the sports and cultural activities within the prison), visiting the hairdressing salon. The salon is staffed by offenders and is open to the warders (called ‘members’ in prison) and the public. Just R14 can buy you a haircut. A little way down the passage we noticed a room populated by Brazilians attending a group session. Nkaiseng says Brazilians are by far the largest group of foreign nationals within the prison, most having been sentenced for drug-related crimes. Later, Nkaiseng very proudly showed us recycled fashion – DCS had organised a fashion show in which inmates could design fashion garments out of recyclable objects. We saw a very ornate wedding dress made out of sheets of exam pad paper and a very smart men’s jacket – complete with gold buttons made from coffee sachet foil wrappers.

Nkaiseng is a firm believer in the arts. She took us out into the prison courtyard in which female inmates – accompanied by male offenders – were busy practicing for a choir competition. Nkaiseng will accompany them to Durban this week where they will compete in a DCS organised choir competition. She very proudly told us that Sun City has won many sporting accolades in the past.

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A dedicated ‘granny section’ (as Nkaiseng calls it) houses offenders who are over fifty years of age. Currently, there are 20 inmates in this section. Nearby is the kitchen  – offenders staff the kitchen and we were surprised to note that provision is made for dietary and medical requirements. We watched as the meals were put into special plastic containers labelled ‘no pork’, ‘vegetarian’ and ‘no dairy’. The meals are wheeled into each section, which houses a dining hall in which inmates can sit together and eat.

The hospital looked clean and well-stocked, with the nurses telling us that a dedicated doctor visits every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. They did however note that they have fewer beds available than they need and that the hospital operates frequently at maximum capacity. There’s a dedicated cell where pregnant women reside – away from not pregnant fellow inmates – for the duration of their pregnancy. Babies are delivered at the nearby Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital and then housed with their mothers in a special group cell. Each bed has a small crib next to it. Once the babies are older than a year they move, along with their mothers, into another specialised cell which opens onto a courtyard with a jungle gym and various toys. There is even an aftercare-like facility in which ‘teacher’ offenders look after fellow offenders babies when they are attending court or other activities. Once babies reach the age of two they are required by law to leave the prison premises and to live with relatives/care givers outside of prison.

There is a special section for students – those who are currently registered as studying with UNISA. There is also a section for inmates who are currently working towards obtaining their matric certificates. There is also an awaiting trial section, in which inmates who have yet to be sentenced reside. A juvenile section currently houses 11 juveniles who are accompanied by two elder inmates, their ‘prison mothers’.

Surprisingly, the library is situation in the bowels of the prison – the maximum section. The library is staffed by two offenders and is open to offenders and ‘members’. The library contains over 2000 books – featuring a mix of languages and a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. There was an overwhelming amount of crime fiction- featuring well known authors like Cornwall, Orford, le Carre, Rendell and Grisham.

Overall the visit was enlightening and we were able to witness what life inside Sun City may be like for female offenders. The impression we gained was that compare to male correctional facilities the women’s prison is much cleaner and better equipped in terms of its hospital and recreation facilities. However, we were alarmed to note that inmates are confined to their sections 24 hours a day and are under lock-down (confined to their cells) from 3pm every day until 7am the following morning.

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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.

One Response to A tour of ‘Sun City’ Women’s Prison

  1. akismet-58b3641a98c0c7ae8b5d617493a290a9 says:

    Hey Kyla,

    It was with interest that I read your article. I must admit, the article points to some very positive aspects of the Female facility at the Johannesburg Prison.

    Having a loved one currently incarcerated at that facility, and also having had extensive contact with a number of inmates there over the past 18 months, I can’t but help thinking that you were shown a very select few sections of the facility. Certainly the reports that I have received from numerous inmates do not paint as rosy a picture of the facility! Of great concern to me over the past 18 months has been the fact that inmates are kept locked in their own sections, as you rightly mention. Also, the early lockdown (you mention 3.00pm each day) in my experience of talking to the inmates is more often than not by midday or 1.00pm!!

    It is a known fact that inmates at the facility only receive 2 meals a day (breakfast and a cooked lunch), and the evening ‘meal’ consists of only a few slices of dry brown bread. Nothing else.

    What you also did not mention (and probably were not told about) is the frequent loss of electricity, sometime for days at a time. A recent incident resulted in no electricity for 3 days, and because of that, rather sparse meals. It was reported to me that a lot of the inmates ate what they could salvage or buy from the in-house shop (called the snoepie winkel).

    Another great concern is the fact that there is generally very little or no hot water in most of the female facility. I have been told that hot water is only available for perhaps 1 – 2 hours daily!

    My greatest concern has been the receiving of reports of the electricity being turned of as a punishment!! This action is specifically disallowed in prison regulations, and borders on torture!!

    Thanks for the great article. I would only hope that officials would be honest and would not spruce up small sections of the facility and then pass those sections off as the norm!!

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