ITUMELENG ENGLISH, KUTLWANO OLIFANT and GABRE NGOASHENG
WE can’t show you the pictures, but we can tell you what we saw.
The minute we arrived at the Groenpunt Correctional Centre maximum-security entrance in the Free State, prison warders were gearing up their shields and bullet-proof vests and rushing to units housing high-risk prisoners.
There was some commotion, and members of the parliamentary portfolio committee on correctional services made their exit. They criss-crossed paths with armed warders who hurriedly headed in the other direction, invading the office they had been observing.
The portfolio committee left.
Then, through the fence, we saw a mob of warders assaulting a man dressed in orange garb – apparently a defenceless prisoner – who squirmed and groaned in pain.
We don’t know who he is, or what happened to him afterwards.
But we saw them passing the man around in a circle, brutally beating him.
As cameras clicked away, capturing the action, the men in brown continued to beat the prisoner.
Then they took him away, and came for us. What happened next was an hour-long traumatic experience that left us feeling like terrorists.
“What are you doing?” asked an armed warder dressed in brown uniform.
His colleagues joined him and they blocked our car.
“Please get out of the vehicle,” said one of the warders.
There were three photographers, including one from The Star, and a reporter from The Star.
With an army of armed warders surrounding us, photographers were ordered to delete pictures they had taken, capturing the beating we had just witnessed.
Our cameras were confiscated, our cellphones too. A camera left with us by an official from the portfolio committee was also seized.
We were ordered into Correctional Services cars and taken to an administration block, where we were lined up and body-searched. It was humiliating and terrifying.
Shaking in fear, we could see other warders peeping through the door.
All we did was take pictures of an incident we found disturbing. But we were made to feel like criminals.
For about an hour, we stayed in that room, defenceless and without a word on what would happen next.
Unbeknown to us, our phones, cameras and memory cards were being surveyed by the prison’s IT people. And when the cameras were returned, all data, including pictures unrelated to the Free State prison facility, had been deleted.
During this process, The Star’s journalist was taken to the women’s toilets to be body-searched.
We co-operated, but felt traumatised and powerless.
Our belongings were returned, but not one of The Star’s photographer’s memory cards.
Officials took us back to the main hall, telling us we had contravened the law, so should now do what we were told.
Back at the main hall, the portfolio committee media briefing had been under way for a while. We couldn’t stay as we felt haunted by the events.
Soon afterwards, we received confusing calls on our cellphones, which led us to believe officials were interfering with our calls.
The Star team went to the prison at the invitation of the portfolio committee, which was touring the facility following the recent rampage by prisoners who set fire to the admin block and cells. Nine officials and 50 offenders were injured.
The Star understands that both the Groenpunt head and the area commissioner have been placed on precautionary suspension pending the outcome of a probe, which is being led by the deputy regional commissioner of the Eastern Cape.
Correctional Services regional commissioner for the Free State and Northern Cape Subashni Moodley said photographers had violated an earlier agreement not to move from where they were stationed or take pictures.
She said her officials deleted only pictures that were taken at the facility and handed memory sticks back to the team.
When The Star editor Makhudu Sefara told her that her officials had deleted all pictures, including unused images unrelated to what happened at Groenpunt, she said she was merely repeating what officials had told her.
“Your officials are evidently misleading you,” said Sefara. To which she retorted: “I was not there. You were not there. I am just telling you what I have been told.”
When asked about a memory stick belonging to photographer Itumeleng English, she said our team did not want to acknowledge ownership. It later emerged that the memory stick to which she referred did not belong to our photographer.
When Sefara told her about the alleged assault of a prisoner by a group of officers, her cellphone battery died. Messages that were left were not returned at the time of publication.