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Durban - A prisoners’ forum that was set up to work with warders to eradicate gangs at Westville Prison has itself become a violent gang.
The Forum Gang is alleged to have been collecting protection money from inmates at Westville Prison’s Medium B section, and terrorising and assaulting those who refuse to pay. It also controls the selling of food and luxury goods.
According to sources, including a prisoner and a senior warder, attempts to stop the gang were met with violence.
The section’s prisoners claim they have to pay a monthly tax to watch television, eat food and protect themselves from being terrorised and assaulted. They allege the forum members also do the work of warders, including administrative duties and meting out punishment to ill-disciplined inmates.
KwaZulu-Natal Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman, Nokothula Zikhali, said they were aware of the allegations against the prisoners’ forum and they were being investigated by the Medium B section head.
Further details would be released once the investigation had been completed, she said.
A prisoner who contacted the Daily News said each cell in the section had a forum chairman.
“They run a tight ship. Every prisoner is monitored closely. If we break their rules we face a disciplinary hearing and are punished.”
Punishment included anything from cleaning the toilets or surrendering meal vouchers.
Forum members also confiscated bedding and mattresses and prisoners were forced to sleep on the bare concrete, he said.
“We have complained so many times to the prison authorities, but nothing has been done. The warders are in cahoots with the forum. They bribe them (warders) with cash and drugs.”
The prisoner said that after lockdown at night, prisoners were terrorised in the dark.
“We sleep up to 60 in a cell. Sometimes we are stabbed or assaulted. The warders pretend not to hear our screams for help.” He claimed that each cell was forced to pay the forum R140 a month to watch TV.
“They make us sign documents or put our thumbprints to pieces of paper. If we don’t maintain deals we are beaten to a pulp. The forum members even abuse our shop account. They buy things on our names and we are left with the bill.”
He said the forum comprised 10 “executive” members.
“They are from the 26 and 28 gangs. They broke away to start the forum. The intention was to stop the gangs from running the prison,” he said. “But they are even worse than those gangs. They are monsters who will do anything to get their way.”
He alleged that the forum members and warders smuggled drugs such as whoonga, mandrax and dagga into the cells.
“We are allowed to smoke in our cells. R50 will buy you a hit of almost anything on the market.”
“They can get you anything you want – from cellphones to drugs or even Kentucky Fried Chicken and Nandos.”
He said cellphones were from the bottom of the range to the latest iPhones and BlackBerrys.
The phones sold for between R200 and R5 000, depending on the model.
“They are making a killing. Whatever cash is made in prison, the forum members pay the warders and send the rest to their families.”
He described meal times as the worse part of the day: “They bully us for our meal tickets and snatch what they fancy off our plates.”
The prisoner said Medium B was like a grocery store.
“You can buy any food item you want – chips, chocolates and even cigarettes. But the prices are very high. It is daylight robbery.”
A senior warder, who did not want to be named, said the forum tried to do the official work of warders.
“The forum makes their own rules and regulations. The biggest problem is that they are supported by many corrupt warders. There have been several attempts to get rid of the forum, but they rise again because of the warders.”
He said many warders had tried to dissolve the forum, but they were either worked out of the section or physically attacked.
“Medium B is a world on its own... a very, very dangerous world.”
The warder said his own life had been threatened several times.
“They have threatened to shoot me and harm my family”
He said warders in Medium B had been investigated for working with the forum, and that in the past year six warders had been transferred out of the section.
“This is an underground operation. The forum will use any excuse to take full control of the cells. It is really bad,” the warder said. “Most times the warders in Medium B sit back and sip coffee the whole day while the forum members run the show.”
He said this included escorting prisoners, doing paperwork, working in the hospital handing out medication, and controlling the kitchens.