Johannesburg Prison, also known as Sun City, where 16 awaiting-trial prisoners escaped. File picture: Antoine de Ras/Independent Media
Johannesburg - The Department of Correctional Services has conceded it has overcrowding and understaffing challenges but insists more heads should roll following the escape of 16 inmates at Johannesburg Prison.

This after two more officials from the prison, known as Sun City, were suspended on Tuesday, bringing to seven the number of warders placed on precautionary suspension in less than a week. At least two are facing criminal charges.

Gauteng spokesperson Mocheta Monama said the suspensions were as a result of an ongoing internal investigation following what is believed to be the country’s most daring and biggest prison break in history.

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“The Department of Correctional Services acknowledges the challenges of overcrowding and understaffing. However, it is also our responsibility to ensure our facilities are centres of rehabilitation. We will continue to root out all forms of unlawful activities to maintain a high standard of safety and security,” said Monama.

He said the officials would be “paid full salaries excluding allowances, pending the outcome of the investigation”.

On April 9, 16 awaiting trial prisoners escaped through a pipe shaft and broke through a wall in the Medium B section. At least seven were up for murder.

People close to the prison said at the time a well calculated inside job was suspected.

The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) said it was concerned by the arrests and suspensions and laid bare members’ working conditions.

Spokesperson Richard Mamabolo said the union viewed the department’s approach as a “discredited and exposed methodology of scapegoating to hide their self-inflicted failures”.

“The section within which these awaiting triallists escaped houses a population of 600, all of which are manned by eight officials during the week, and only four over weekends.

“The infrastructural integrity of the centre has dilapidated beyond living conditions, with permanent water leakages susceptible to airborne diseases. This is part of the reasons the escaped inmates could have easily penetrated the wall,” Mamabolo said.

He said a cell meant to house 18 inmates had more than 50.

“So the challenge of overcrowding and understaffing remains a reality and a contributing factor as well. This logically means that correctional officials are left incapacitated to manage the affairs of the centre in a satisfactory manner, and their safety is always of high concern.”

Monama said there were 714 inmates at the section.

He would not reveal the number of officials on duty on weekdays and weekends and how many were on duty on the day of the escape, saying there was a “ security risk involved in the information”.

Monama said there were 17 cells in use on the day of the escape and each accommodated 42 prisoners.

He said at least seven escapees were still at large. Two of the 16 men were shot and killed in KwaZulu-Natal while others were rearrested.

“We will not rest until all of them are back behind bars. The community is urged to continue coming forward with any information that may assist in this matter,” Monama said.

The Star