Inmates at Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison who are preparing a "hit" first are getting into battle dress.

They don caps, jackets, scarves and maybe towels around their shoulders.

In prison jargon it's called getting "Britished" and the message is unmistakable.

Someone's life is in danger. Maybe another inmate, or maybe a warder but either way it's not to be taken lightly.

And if you ever hear the command "up", usually given by a gang leader, run for your life.

Correctional Services spokesperson Eddie Johnson has never had the instruction directed at him but he knows what it means.

Several months back a warder was stabbed 14 times on a staircase. He was lucky to survive.

Johnson took a Weekend Argus team on a tour of the prison this week to get a sense of just how bad the situation is.

Within moments of our entering the prison, an inmate appeared with a barrage of complaints.

Overcrowding, no proper food, no proper medical care, warders ignoring complaints. He was the first of many. As we moved along the corridors a range of prisoners came sidling up. "Are you a legal representative?" asked one. "Can you take complaints?" pleaded another. Everyone had a story to tell.

The admission centre is designed for 1 600 people. The day we were there they took in nearly 4 000.

From there we headed to the kitchen where lunch was being dished up from huge pots but it was hard to tell what it was.

The smell was stomach-turning. We watched a prisoner slap a mixture of jam and margarine on thousands of slices of bread while flies buzzed around him.

We passed through an unlocked and unmanned gate, one of the interleading gates between the sentenced and unsentenced sections.

Johnson explained that the prison was seriously understaffed, which was why some gates had to be left open.

He took us to a cell designed for 30 men. That day there were 76, ranging in age from 24 to 65, packed inside.

The prisoners told us three or four of them slept in the same bed and some slept on mattresses on the floor between the bunks.

They are locked in 23 out of 24 hours and share one toilet and one shower.

We met Roger Ntlanhla, a paraplegic who pulls himself around on a walking frame.

He's been in the cell since December, but it's not long enough to get a bed so he sleeps on a mattress on a bench in the cell.

According to the rules of the cell you have to wait for a bed, he told us.

The single cells aren't much better. Designed for one, each one accommodated at least three prisoners with barely enough room to stretch out your arms.

Most of the prisoners were friendly. They laughed and made jokes but Johnson said the mood could change in a heartbeat.

In the unsentenced wing there is a section called the gangster floor where the 26s, 27s and 28s are kept separate from the non-gangsters.

But warders know that if a gangster wants to get to a non-gang member he'll find a way, one way or another.

Correctional officer Christopher Malgas explained that sexual abuse was the trademark of the 28s, the oldest prison gang.

Depending on what you looked like, gang members took you for "light" or "heavy" duty.

Men who were deemed beautiful or appealing got "light duty", becoming the "females", while those on "heavy duty" were expected to protect the gang.

Malgas said the 26s were the smart boys who wore branded clothing.

"They will outwit you. They won't grab what they want but will try to talk you out of it."

He said the 27s were more aggressive and fighters.

Notorious rapists were pointed out to us and some of their victims. But they can't be separated because there is simply nowhere to put them.

Malgas said the time had come for the police, justice system and correctional services to work together.

He said the elections were won on promises of being tough on crime.

"And the police say they'll catch the 100 most wanted. But where will we put them?"

As we prepared to leave, a group of prisoners got down on all fours with mops tied to their hands and knees.

One leaned over them and shouted out the words of a prison song and the men crawled in time up and down the passage, almost as if they were undergoing military-style training.

It's a tradition called pas vang, or clean the passage, according to Malgas, and it's done every day, mostly just to pass the time because that's one thing they're not short of in Pollsmoor.