Waiting for the smoking gun

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The ‘making of’ the Mangaung G4S torture story

By Ruth Hopkins

On 25 October 2013 The Mail and Guardian ran a story on their front page that I had worked on for a year and for a long time I was convinced it would never see the light of day. I had gathered shocking evidence of the use of electroshocks and forced medication with anti-psychotic drugs to control and subdue the inmates incarcerated in Mangaung prison, run by global security company G4S.

The publication triggered a media storm that reached all corners of the globe; the BBC, CNN, AP, AFP, Reuters and many national media covered the torture that had taken place in the prison.

Months earlier though, I had hit a brick wall in my investigation and I remember sitting in my office at the Wits Justice Project, banging my head on my desk in desperation. I knew there was very serious, widespread and pervasive torture going on in the privately run prison with complete impunity, but I didn’t feel my evidence was indisputable, hard enough. The thought of having to watch them get away with it after months and months of research was unbearable.

But let me start at the very beginning. It all began with a letter. The Wits Justice Project receives letters, calls, emails and faxes from inmates throughout the country, petitioning us for assistance with their legal process, requesting us to expose their wrongful convictions or they write to us about the prison conditions. Mangaung prison produced by far the biggest stack of letters, which drew my attention.

I visited the prison for the first time in August 2012 and talked to some of the inmates who had written to us. Their tales were worrying; they complained about the ‘Ninjas’; the Emergency Security Team (EST), a group of about eight armed men who are called to emergency situations. They are supposed to use minimum force, but according to the prisoners, they went completely overboard. They would take prisoners to the single cell unit, strip them naked, pour water over them and electroshock them with the electronically charged shields they carry with them.

The General

When word got around that I was investigating the prison, a general of the infamous 26 prison gang got in touch. I met the gangly man, covered in tattoos and several front teeth missing, in the cramped interview room in the visiting section of the prison. This facility is meant for lawyers, but no one at the maximum security prison copped on to the fact I was a journalist and this enabled me to interview dozens of inmates during the year-long investigation.

The general told me he had compiled a file detailing various problematic issues and complaints. He had the file smuggled out of the prison and I picked it up in Johannesburg. The handwritten file contained information that corroborated the stories I had been hearing from inmates, but it also contained a new allegation: the prison was injecting inmates against their will with drugs that made them walk, feel and act like zombies or robots, that caused intense sleepiness, involuntary and spastic movements of limbs and a dry mouth or excess saliva. The general put me in touch with further inmates who had experienced electro-shocking and forced injections.

The Freedom Fighter

The pattern of abuse that emerged was not only restricted to the inmates. I was introduced to a warder who was heavily involved in the union and who I will refer to as the Freedom Fighter, as he has put up pictures of Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro as his Whatsapp profile picture.

The Freedom Fighter was a very important, yet quite laborious source. It felt much like a cat-and-mouse chase; he would not show or turn up hours late for meetings and made it very clear that I would have to work hard to get anything from him. ‘I don’t trust white people,’  was one of his opening comments. After a while though, a relationship of mutual trust was established. The freedom fighter told me how the staff at the prison were being overworked and underpaid. The employees had complained repeatedly about the dangerous working conditions; one unarmed warder had to oversee 65 violent, gang affiliated hardened criminals. Not surprisingly, the employees had suffered: stabbings, hostage takings, riots, attempted rape and actual rape were common in the prison. The management had not addressed the concerns of the warders and this had led to repeated unprotected strikes. As I got to know the freedom fighter a little better, he told me how the workers were preparing for another strike.

The Deep Throat

My third crucial source was a DCS official who had written a very critical report about the prison conditions at Mangaung in 2010. The report details a culture of impunity in the correctional facility: excessive use of electroshocks are mentioned and he compares the prison to Guantanamo Bay. The most interesting part of the report however was a list of 62 inmates who had been placed in isolation cells for up to three years and some had been denied life saving medication for HIV and TB.  According to South African law, prison authorities may only place an inmate in isolation for seven days, a hearing has to be called for the solitary confinement to be extended.

The brick wall

I was nearing the 12 month point in my research and had gathered stories of approximately 70 inmates and quite a few warders, but I still didn’t have the indisputable evidence of the abuse that I felt was needed for the story to go to print.  My colleagues suggested I focus on other issues. I started headbanging my desk.

After consulting some colleagues, I decided though not to throw the baby out with the bath water, a better idea, we all agreed, was to run the story piecemeal. I had strong evidence of the illegal isolation of inmates, as the report was very detailed and I managed to interview some of the prisoners on the list and they confirmed this had happened to them. 

When I published that story in Citypress and the UK Guardian, the doors to the prison banged firmly close. G4S realized who I was and they wouldn’t allow any further access and also made it impossible for inmates to contact me. It also opened doors; more warders, inmates and relatives of inmates crawled out of the woodwork to tell me their stories.

Meanwhile, events started to unfold that worked in my favour. The simmering labour unrest came to a head in August when warders went on strike. The Labour Court deemed the strike unprotected in terms of the Labour Relations Act and ordered all staff back to work. They went back, but in September an even bigger strike took place: approximately 400 warders, more than half of the workforce, stayed away. This is when the prison started to descend into complete chaos, with riots and stabbings breaking out and a warder was taken hostage. G4S responded by firing all employees and replacing them with uncertified workers. When the Department for Correctional Services (DCS) got wind of this, they invoked the Correctional Services Act, which allows them to step in and take over the prison if the situation is out of control.

Amidst these turbulent events, one of my sources leaked video footage to me, shot by the EST. One of the videos is of an inmate who is being forcibly injected. In another video, an inmate is being stitched up by a nurse. In the background you can hear an interrogation going on, a male voices asks an inmate what he was doing and then the dry clicking sound of the electro shock shields is followed by screaming.

This was the smoking gun I was looking for for more than a year. Finally, I had that indisputable evidence.

G4S, Africa’s biggest employer and the biggest private employer listed on the London stock exchange, responded, as expected, by threatening legal action. They claimed the allegations were untrue and defamatory. Curiously, at the same time as their lawyers were exploring legal action, the G4S Africa director for human resources, Elanie Kruger, sent me an email requesting a meeting with me, over coffee in Sandton. She quickly withdrew the invite when I announced the director of the Wits Justice Project would be joining.

Former employees are convinced she was going to make me an offer I could not refuse. Whatever the veracity of that claim may be, G4S has employed quite a few people who were or could be potential muckrakers. They employed three independent prison visitors, who are supposed to report on issues of abuse, as well as a staff member of the DCS controller, who is tasked with reporting various issues – among others the use of force – to the Department. The daughter of the controller furthermore works at the prison. Lastly, a previous controller who was accused of inciting inmates, against who G4S said it was going to press criminal charges, was hired by G4S as an ‘operational advisor.

There is still a lot to be said and written about G4S and its prison operation in South Africa. The stories on the illegal isolation and on the use of electroshocks and forced medication could see the light of day because I waited. I waited and continued to build relationships of trust with my sources, who eventually handed me the smoking gun. And that to me, forms the core of investigative journalism that the Wits Justice Project stand for and it distinguishes our work from other forms of journalism; we wait and invest and expand the network of sources and only when we have corroborated every aspect of a story, do we hit the headlines.

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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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