File picture: Antoine de Ras/Independent Media

Johannesburg - A calculated inside job is suspected in what could be South Africa’s biggest and most daring prison break after 16 inmates escaped from Johannesburg Prison.

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) on Monday said the awaiting-trial prisoners escaped through a pipe shaft and broke through a wall in the Medium B section at the prison, also known as Sun City.

“According to a preliminary investigation, these remand detainees escaped in the morning at approximately 3am. They escaped through a pipe shaft and used an object to break the wall, then proceeded to the fence. A criminal case has been opened with the SAPS,” said Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo.

Read: PICS: These are the 16 Sun City escapees

Manhunt launched for 16 Johannesburg Prison escapees

Insiders, including inmates at the prison, said the escape must have been an inside job.

“The breakout happened in an area about 100 metres from where the entire prison security is situated.

“The building known as ‘dog unity’ is where prison security keep their dogs, guns and everything else,” an inmate said.

“The prisoners walked through a corridor where the pipe shaft is before breaking the wall.

“We do not know whether they drilled through it or what,” said the inmate who has been incarcerated for almost two decades.

“It is baffling. It is strange. Security should have heard the prisoners breaking the wall or even their movements. I don’t think the CCTV cameras are working,” he added.

Another prisoner raised issues about how the prisoners were able to get out of their cells.

“That is where the whole thing started and that is where the investigation must start,” said the prisoner.

The Star understands that prison officials and high-level investigation team from the department arrived at the prison in the morning, with a number of people being questioned.

“The staff on duty when the incident happened have a lot to answer to. They are in a lot of trouble,” said a source at the prison.

At least seven of the 16 prisoners were up for murder: Nkosiyazi Phungula, 27, Ntobeko Hlatshwayo, 32, Sabelo Ngubane, 30, Martin Piliminta, 30, Nkosinathi Siphesihle Manyoni, 23, Sibonelo Nkosingiphile Thwala, 24, and Shonela Showe.

The murders were committed in Joburg’s Jeppe, Hillbrow and Booysens, and in Primrose, Ekurhuleni.

Phungula, Hlatshwayo, Ngubane and Piliminta were due to appear in court on April 16.

Percy Matimba Chauke, 37, Thambanqa Msezane, 23, and Hlanganiso Sibanda, 29, were all up for rape committed in Kagiso on the West Rand and in Jeppe.

Siphiwe Khuma, 34, Thabane Nkosi, 34, Smanga Mtshali, 44, and 26-year-old Mthokozisi Dladla had been awaiting trial for robbery while Thabane Gwala, 27, was arrested for armed robbery in Meadowlands, Soweto.

Khuma and Nkosi are co-accused in a robbery case. They were due to appear in court on Tuesday morning.

Tumelo Mosikoe, 32, was arrested for housebreaking and was supposed to appear in court today as well.

“The DCS and SAPS have launched a manhunt. The DCS would like to call on families, friends and members of the public to assist in the recapture of these fugitives.

“Members of the public are advised to alert the nearest SAPS should they positively identify any,” said Nxumalo.

National commissioner of correctional services Zach Modise said in the department’s 2014/2015 annual report that the department managed to reduce escapes from 60 in 2013/2014 to 49 in the year under review.

“Operation Vala, which is a festive season security plan and includes tightening of security, limiting offenders’ externally focused activities to essential services, curtailing goods and products brought to facilities by families and friends, conducting impromptu searches to eliminate illegal substances, and maintaining appropriate staffing levels, as informed by local threat assessments by heads of correctional centres and area commissioners, also contributed to the reduction of escapes,” said Modise.

He said in the 2015/2016 annual report that of 71 inmates who escaped countrywide, the department managed to rearrest 57.

The department had not responded to requests for additional comment at the time of publication.

Last month, six inmates escaped from Pollsmoor Prison's Medium B section in the Western Cape.

They were serving various sentences at the time of their escape after removing bars in one of the windows of a prison cell.

In October, seven prisoners escaped from the Kutama Sinthumule maximum security prison in Louis Trichardt, Limpopo. This was after riots broke out at the facility.

They also set a section of the prison on fire before breaking out.

The Star