Port Elizabeth - More than 200 inmates of Port Elizabeth’s St Albans Medium B prison were subjected to mass-beatings, electric shock and torture during a midnight search for cell phones and contraband ten days ago. Department of Correctional Services (DCS) Eastern Cape Regional Commissioner Nkosinathi Breakfast confirmed that he led a “routine search operation carried out in terms of normal policy procedure” at the prison and that both he and Eastern Cape Provincial Commissioner Mandla Jam were present.
During the search, conducted by members of DCS’ Emergency Security Team (EST) from Umtata and East London, inmates say they were forced to lie naked on the floor in a long human chain with their noses in the anus of the inmate in front of them. One wheelchair-bound inmate with spinal injuries says he was forced to lie naked on his bed and beaten while Jam allegedly watched.
Last Thursday, Port Elizabeth human rights lawyer Egon Oswald, who is representing more than 100 inmates, brought a High Court application to obtain access to his clients and to photograph their injuries - including bruises, fractures, broken bones and missing teeth.
Inmate Jeandre Nel described how EST members used batons, sticks and shoes to assault inmates and force them out of their cells: “They stripped us naked and made us do squats with our arms up while female warders watched and laughed. Then they made us lie on wet grass and cement outside the cell in a long chain with our heads between the legs of the inmate in front.
“If you looked up, they hit you with batons. I don’t know how long I lay there with my face in that guy’s anus. They finished with us after 2am. Some of those guys were under the influence of alcohol. They were shouting that ‘we are dogs’. One stamped on me and twisted his boot into my ribs. He said, ‘I’ll squash you like a bug, like a cockroach. In the end, they found nothing in our cell.”
“They came into the cell while we were sleeping and shouted at me to stand up. I said I can’t, I’m in a wheelchair,” recalled Fusi Tshabalala* who did not want his real name disclosed for fear of reprisals.
“They started to klap me in the face; they told me to take my clothes off and lie on my stomach. One of those guys beat me on my back with a baton until I screamed and cried so loudly that Jam had to tell them to stop. Before that, he didn’t say anything. He just stood and watched.”
According to Nceba Siko, “a lady warder forced my thighs open. She grabbed my penis and shocked me twice in my testicles. They beat us and moered us before they searched.”
Zwelandile Khumalo said EST members tied him and another inmate together by their dreadlocks. “They said we must undo the dreads ourselves. While we were trying, they went on beating us. They said it was because of my dreads. They found nothing illegal in my possession.”
According to Khumalo, he was also forced to bark like a dog. “If they say do (sic) a chicken sound or cat sound, or roar like a lion and you don’t do what they say, they beat you. People were badly injured, some had broken ribs, some were shocked with shock-shields and people were deeply hurt inside.”
Nonetheless, Breakfast said: “I’m not aware of assaults, torture and beatings and haven’t personally received complaints. I am aware that we’ve received complaints from some offenders saying they were assaulted and we’re currently investigating these complaints…I don’t know about inmates being forced to lie naked on the floor or torture. I can’t comment on that.
“The purpose was a normal search, not to assault offenders. We’re aware of offenders’ human rights. The purpose was to ensure offenders are safe and that there are no illegal substances, cell phones or dagga in our facilities. The investigation will tell us everything…I led the operation but didn’t see what they were doing in the units, or cells. I was in the office.”
Criminal charges have been laid at the Kabega Park police station and an official complaint lodged with the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services and the SA Human Rights Commission.
* Carolyn Raphaely is a senior journalist with the Wits Justice Project, which investigates miscarriages of justice, and is based in the journalism department at Wits University.