South Africa’s inmates also want in on the action of tweeting, updating Facebook statuses and surfing the internet - and some are even using smuggled cellphones to continue running their criminal empires and intimidate witnesses from behind bars.
On one of his court appearances on September 27 last year, Durban’s so-called “axe-man”, Joseph Ntshongwana, updated his Facebook status - five months after he was arrested and charged for allegedly murdering three people with an axe.
Although legislation bars prisoners - including those awaiting trial – from having a cellphone, Ntshongwana posted a new cellphone number and urged his Facebook friends to contact him.
The KZN Department of Correctional Services failed to respond to queries this week, but if Ntshongwana updated his status himself and uses a cellphone in prison, experts say that he would be among scores of inmates country-wide who have taken advantage of the department’s apparently lax security to fulfil their social networking needs.
It’s something that Vincent Smith, chairman of Parliament’s correctional services portfolio committee, wants to put an end to.
Smith’s committee has asked the government to jam cellphone networks at all of the country’s 241 correctional facilities to “remind inmates that they’re in prison, not in a luxury resort”.
According to reports, inmates and their relatives often resorted to ingenious ways to hide and smuggle in the cellphones. Sim cards have been found hidden in soap bars and in prisoners’ mouths and sometimes cellphones are wrapped in plastic and inserted either in the rectum or vagina.
Without cutting-edge scanners and X-ray machines to detect contraband at some prisons, searches by the warders are often not enough to stop the smuggling.
And in some instances, such as at Westville Prison, warders themselves are being investigated for smuggling the cellphones, drugs and other contraband, from which they can reportedly earn up to R20 000 a month.
Smith, who will be meeting the department for a report- back on his request for the introduction of cellphone jamming equipment next month, said the current system of unannounced raids in prison cells had proven ineffective.
“You’re looking at 241 correctional facilities in the country. Multiply that by the number of cells that there are… it’s impossible to win the fight.
“The solution is to make cellphones unusable at our facilities. I know there is jamming technology and it must be put in place.
“And if it affects the prison officials or neighbouring residents, then tough. Would you rather have that or a convicted criminal orchestrating crimes from behind bars?”
Smith said access to cellphones was particularly rife among awaiting-trial prisoners, as they often still had more contact with the outside world.
Smith noted previous inmates’ requests for the installation of satellite television channels in cells and said that if left unchecked, the country’s prisons risked turning into the equivalent of luxury resorts.
“You can’t have a situation where you’re incarcerated, but you’re living like you’re on the outside. Prisoners can’t sit and watch television 24 hours a day. You can’t have everything else but freedom to be on the outside.”
Last November, at least 60 cellphones were seized by warders at Westville Prison’s Medium-B cells in a surprise raid. Also found during the raid were sim cards, phone chargers, home-made knives, stolen food, electric sandwich toasters, dagga and mandrax.
These items are banned from the prison, especially cellphones, which are not allowed in holding cells, even for staff.
Correctional services national spokesman Zacharia Modise said many of their facilities were equipped with scanners and X-ray machines and surprise searches were frequently conducted on inmates and warders.
Modise said the options currently being considered included installing technology that would bar cellphone use through jamming the networks.
“We’re also looking at technology that will help us detect cellphones in our cells.
“It’s an expensive process, so we’re still testing it.
“Thereafter we will decide on what to go with. But it is a serious problem.” - Tribune