The Groenpunt Correctional Centre in the Free State is seen in this file picture. Photo: Itumeleng English

Free State - The prisoner who The Star’s journalists witnessed being assaulted by warders at Groenpunt prison is dead.

Warders claim the man succumbed to injuries resulting from the “necessary force” they applied on him after he had tried to kill one of the warders.

The as-yet-unnamed prisoner had been serving a 16-year sentence for robbery with aggravating circumstances and assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm.

Correctional Services deputy provincial commissioner for Free State and Northern Cape Grace Molatedi confirmed the prisoner’s death and the serious injuries suffered by his co-suspects during a fight with a group of warders on Wednesday.

Molatedi said the three prisoners had attacked a warder after another inmate opened a case of robbery against the three. Warders then arrested them. It was while they were being taken to be charged that the attack occurred.

“One of the offenders grabbed the warder and held him by his hands. Another offender started stabbing him while the third was busy hitting him with a padlock,” Molatedi said.

A female warder raised the alarm, Molatedi said, and other warders came to his aid.

“The other officials went in while the offenders were still busy assaulting one of them. They intervened and used necessary force to prevent the officers from further stabbing or possibly killing their own. It was in the process of them (warders) using the necessary force that the dead offender was injured,” Molatedi said.

Seriously injured, the prisoner was taken to the Groenpunt prison’s hospital at about 1.30pm. He died two hours later.

The two other prisoners have been admitted to an unidentified hospital, where their condition has been described as critical but stable.

Molatedi said a fourth prisoner was also treated at the same hospital and discharged.

The warder who was seriously wounded in the attack is still in hospital.

Molatedi said the prison authorities were conducting an internal probe and had also reported the case to the police.

The Star witnessed the attack, and lensman Itumeleng English took pictures of it as three warders took turns to form a circle, beating the man.

Warders later surrounded English and reporter Kutlwano Olifant, subjecting them and two other photographers to an hour-long investigation. Cameras, memory cards and cellphones were confiscated.

Warders then went and searched the memory cards and phones in their IT section.

Eventually, the journalists had their belongings returned to them – but not the cameras’ memory cards.

On Wednesday night, The Star editor Makhudu Sefara instructed the newspaper’s lawyers to demand the return of the journalists’ possessions and an apology for the manner in which his staff had been treated.

By late on Thursday night, neither issue had been addressed. Sefara said he was not surprised.

The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) said on Thursday it regarded the detention and searches of the journalists in an extremely serious light.

“We believe that the deletion of photographs was an attempt to destroy evidence and merits charges of defeating the ends of justice against those responsible,” said Sanef acting chairman Nic Dawes.

The journalists had been at the prison to accompany the parliamentary portfolio committee on correctional services and the select committee on security and constitutional affairs, which were investigating last Monday’s crisis when prisoners rioted.

Hundreds of prisoners had to be transferred to other prisons as a result.

On Thursday morning, portfolio committee chairman Vincent Smith lashed out at The Star for breaking an agreement not to take pictures and for suggesting that the warders had acted incorrectly.

“Firstly, the facts are that a DCS (Department of Correctional Services) official was assaulted (stabbed in the neck and head) by three inmates during the oversight visit, and this is what caused the commotion (on Wednesday) at Groenpunt maximum centre.

“Other DCS officials then reacted by restraining the three inmates involved. And yes, there might have been force in doing so. Your headline creates the perception that there was abuse perpetrated by DCS officials on inmates.

“The portfolio committee was present, and it is inconceivable that any abuse could be contemplated or perpetrated in the presence of members of parliament.”

On Thursday night, researcher Ruth Hopkins, of the Wits Justice Project, which investigates miscarriages of justice, said it was illuminating that everyone was focusing on the breach of an “agreement” and not the warders’ conduct.

Attorney Thilevhali Radzilani, of Rajen and Naidoo Incorporated, said the prisoners had a strong case if they decided to press charges.

He added that what happened at Groenpunt did little to promote and encourage rehabilitation.

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