Last week’s death of a Groenpunt prison inmate after a brutal beating by warders in full view of the press fuelled a blame game in the media. The debate centred on whether journalists had disrespected agreements and ignored proper procedure.
The violence of the abuse was completely overshadowed by this debate, at least initially. Ironically, the question of whether proper procedures were followed by warders in this demonstration of dominance was ignored.
As the South African public increasingly loses faith in those tasked with maintaining law and order, the country’s high crime rate means there is little sympathy or concern for prisoners’ rights. Yet South Africa’s much lauded constitution requires that all prisoners are detained in safe custody and their human dignity respected, protected and ensured. The Correctional Services Act also states that the purpose of the correctional system is to contribute to a just, peaceful and safe society by detaining all inmates in safe custody while ensuring their human dignity.
Yet as perpetrators become victims and their supposed protectors become perpetrators, there is an increasing disconnect between the constitutional promise of a life lived with dignity and respect and the harsh reality of life behind bars, where “necessary force” is both used and abused.
According to Just Detention International’s Sasha Gear, “warders regularly complain that they don’t feel confident using batons because they’re not trained to distinguish between minimum and maximum force. They’re told not to use excessive force but don’t know what this means.
“There’s nothing to explain this in the legislation. There’s an urgent need for training in appropriate, responsible use of batons as well as conflict resolution skills to prevent an escalation of unnecessary violence.”
The Wits Justice Project (WJP) regularly receives phone calls, e-mails and letters from inmates and their relatives who complain about physical abuse, violence and torture inflicted by prison warders.
The WJP has also received numerous complaints about a brutal nationwide task force – variously referred to as the Taakmag, Emergency Security Team or the EST – who, along with warders, allegedly employ brutal apartheid-era type tactics to discipline and torture inmates. Prisoners have told us that they were punished for misconduct, being stripped naked and pinned to a metal bed frame. Water was then poured on them and they were given electric shocks, with such high voltage that they urinated blood the next day.
On an official visit to Johannesburg Prison (aka Sun City) last year, the chairman of the National Assembly’s committee on correctional services, Vincent Smith – a vociferous defendant of the Groenpunt warders’ actions – noted that “during the 2011/12 financial year, six prisoners died as a result of unnatural deaths, three escaped and 214 were assaulted by warders”.
After his acquittal last year, former airport heist accused Ukarajee Maundau told the WJP that while he was awaiting trial in the Medium A section of Sun City, “I saw warders beating up inmates for no apparent reason. They’re very, very violent. I saw these beatings every single day of the six years and one day I was inside…”
The Combating and Prevention of Torture of Persons Bill, in the pipeline since 2003, was finally tabled in Parliament in June last year. Parliament’s tardiness in passing anti-torture legislation is astonishing, given the fact that many of its members are likely to have been victims of brutal torture at the hands of prison warders and the apartheid police. Until torture is criminalised, civil action remains the only option for its victims. At present, a warder implicated in torture – and last week’s beatings could be regarded as such – can only be charged with assault or assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
As a result, 231 inmates of Port Elizabeth’s St Albans Prison intend to sue the minister of correctional services later this year, in what is likely to be the largest damages claim ever instituted against the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). The claim emanates from a prison-wide orgy of violence and abuse by warders in 2005 and a subsequent ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee against the South African government. A former St Albans inmate, Bradley McCallum took the matter to Geneva and won his case.
No probe into the incident has been completed. Implicated warders haven’t been prosecuted, and remain in their jobs. The ruling places South Africa in the same polecat position regarding human rights violations as Russia and Serbia. The DCS’s 2011/2012 financial report reveals that this culture of violence carries real and significant financial costs. Of the contingent liabilities of R1.3 billion set aside for legal claims, nearly R1bn has been allocated for bodily injury and assault (R97.374m). Of this sum, only R10m – one-tenth of the bodily injury and assault budget – in liabilities was paid to inmates in 2010/2011.
It is extremely difficult to corroborate reports of torture, violence and abuse, as assaults often go unreported, or police simply do not follow up complaints.
However, the WJP is not the only organisation that receives complaints about torture. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services registered 71 incidences “that may qualify as torture” in its annual report for 2011/2012. According to the annual report: “Inmates, for example, were assaulted with batons or shock-shields used in conjunction with water. Some are placed in single cells for days without food or basic amenities, and some are transferred subsequently to avoid these cases coming under the scrutiny of the SAPS.”
Interestingly, the inspectorate notes that the Free State has the highest incidence of warder-on-inmate violence in the country. The inspectorate, however, has no investigative powers, and its recommendations and observations cannot be legally enforced, which leaves the DCS under no pressure to address the issue.
Not surprisingly, there have not been any criminal prosecutions of officials implicated in the assault and death of inmates in the past three years. This lacuna in enforcement is compounded by the fact that the use of force is not legally defined. If indiscriminate and unregulated use of force, at times amounting to torture, is meted out in prisons, then surely it is in the interest of all parties concerned – the press, DCS, the government and the public – to be apprised of the facts? We can’t sit by passively as prison officials inflict apartheid-era treatment on inmates with impunity.
Should the tragic events that took place at Groenpunt prison generate a debate on whether journalists – who witnessed what appears to be the tip of the torture iceberg – followed correct procedures? Or should we get to the bottom of a growing culture of warder impunity and violence towards a vulnerable group in society that lacks proper channels for complaints or avenues to ensure their abusers are prosecuted?
The Groenpunt riot and its aftermath clearly call for more transparency and openness in South African prisons.
Journalists should have access to correctional facilities because it is in the interest of the South African population to know what goes on within prison walls. Public scrutiny is the best protection against any form of abuse.
The apartheid government banned photographs of prisons and prisoners, and this allowed them to cover up the most appalling torture, abuse and even murder in the cells.
If South Africa is to overcome its gruelling past, then the very buildings where political prisoners were tortured and killed should become places of rehabilitation, where human dignity is respected. Reasonable media access should be allowed if apartheid-era torture methods are to be prevented and addressed.
Obviously, there are security and safety issues at stake within the prison system, and the prison authorities have to manage these, but safety and security concerns should never cover up deplorable conditions in our overcrowded prisons.
The journalists witnessed the abuse of a prisoner. They would be negligent if they did not attempt to record and report on it. The harassment of these journalists appears to be an attempt to divert attention from the real problem of prisoner maltreatment.
If the journalists broke the rules – and this has not been established – then there are appropriate and legal ways for this to be dealt with that do not include searching them and seizing their work. When prison staff deleted photographs on the journalists’ cameras, they were deleting evidence – and this is a serious offence, as Nic Dawes, the acting chairman of the SA National Editors’ Forum, also pointed out in this newspaper on Friday.
The scuffle between reporters and DCS officials at Groenpunt prison is a superficial manifestation of a deeper and more worrying problem. An inmate died, probably as a result of injuries resulting from what could only have been a brutal beating.
This is not an isolated incident, there are tens, hundreds maybe even thousands of prisoners in the country who are denied their human dignity and who are beaten and tortured on a regular basis. The time has come to stand up for these basic rights and to acknowledge and address this grave miscarriage of justice.
l Ruth Hopkins and Carolyn Raphaely are members of the Wits Justice Project, which investigates miscarriages of justice. Professor Anton Harber directs the journalism and media studies programme at Wits University.