Johannesburg - The road into Pretoria offers a scenic view of Unisa, sprawling to the right. Inching further into the mouth of the capital, one can’t miss the iconic Pretoria Central Prison on the left, renamed the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre.
The place has its share of painful memories, with Death Row on site.
In another time, the man who heads it today could have been just another warder, or even a prisoner about to meet his fate.
Area Commissioner Tlabo Thokolo heads a staff of 2 100 dedicated men and women.
Kgosi Mampuru II, says Thokolo, can accommodate between 7 000 and 8 000 prisoners.
The number being held there is 32 percent more than it was designed for, he adds.
The area under his jurisdiction extends beyond the vast complex motorists catch sight of as they drive into town.
The complex is one of the so-called Big Five: Pollsmoor in Cape Town, St Albans in Port Elizabeth, Durban-Westville and Johannesburg.
Kgosi Mampuru comprises six correctional centres, including C-Max, “the most talked-about” of them and which Thokolo says is closed for renovations.
“It takes only male prisoners.”
Up until his release, C-Max was the home of “Prime Evil”, the apartheid killer cop Eugene de Kock.
“It can take between 400 and 500 prisoners, the most high-risk offenders,” Thokolo says.
Its former inmates have been moved to suitable facilities around the country.
Before it was turned over to the Department of Public Works for refurbishment, there was one high-profile escape from C-Max - by Annanias Mathe.
“Colin Chauke escaped about 15 years back, from the local remand facility,” says section head Richard Malebana.
One gets the sense that after the escapes, the Kgosi Mampuru II complex was made into an impenetrable Fort Knox.
There are countless gates, manned by warders with humongous keys or electronically controlled.
Even Houdini would have been tested had he tried to bolt from here.
The women’s prison in the complex is for sentenced convicts, who are in the majority, and remand inmates.
“There we keep all categories of offenders - minimum, medium and maximum.”
He concedes there are women who are as bad as dangerous males and who are in for murder, robbery, or killing their spouses, but says none of them qualify for the C-Max lock-up.
“You can’t put any female there,” he says of C-Max.
“They are quite easily managed,” he adds, referring to the dangerous’ females.
“They are not as much a handful as the males.”
The central prison is only for sentenced prisoners.
The whole complex used to be referred to as Pretoria Central Prison.
Depending on their diction, some even used to call it New Lock, or New Look.
But the prison unit that has the most attention from the outside world now is the local - where Oscar Pistorius is being held.
“It is well-resourced - that’s why it will receive Oscar,” says its head, Malebana, who adds quickly:
“By law we are expected to treat him like any other inmate.”
After threats were made to his life, Pistorius was placed in an isolation cell in the hospital wing.
“The reason was not to put him at an unfair advantage.”
Malebana says “no instruction (was) given that he should be given special treatment”.
A unit manager is in charge of every section in Malebana’s part of the Kgosi Mampuru II prison.
In the section where Pistorius is being held, what strikes one first is that the men held here are referred to as “patients”, not prisoners.
They sleep in “wards”, not cells.
“I may not see Oscar for a week. I only see him when I’m on my rounds,” Malebana says.
“If he doesn’t find joy with the unit manager, he’ll ask to see me. This is not unusual.
“He used to have issues with medical needs. I had to intervene on several occasions.”
“He raised his objections through his lawyers mostly. This is not unusual. Offenders have the right to move their objections through the chain of command.”
Outside the complex, there’s Atteridgeville. It is not in the prison grounds, and no maximum-security prisoners are held there.
Its inmates are “involved in prison labour, going out to agricultural fields and any other areas the department (of Correctional Service) would have identified”.
Odi, in Mabopane, also falls within the Kgosi Mampuru II jurisdiction.
An Atteridgeville inmate escaped while out working, Thokolo says.
The overcrowding is a hindrance, he gripes.
“But as a department we don’t fold our arms.
“We make sure we attend to all our challenges.”
The problem of HIV/Aids among prisoners is “quite moderate” and well managed.
“We have trained nurses and doctors, even psychologists.”
The prison does not employ auxiliary caregivers.
Prison official Singebakho Nxumalo says: “We had 1 300 disabled inmates last year.”
Nationally, there were 160 000 inmates in the penal system.
The Sunday Independent