Driving through the khaki, wintry wheat fields and wilted sunflowers on the road to Mafikeng, you’ll pass Rooigrond Correctional Centre – an apartheid-era relic where former AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche served three years for the attempted murder of a security guard.
It’s also where “lifer” John Banda was moved after being shot with a rubber bullet by a warder inside a Mangaung prison cell in what appears to be a nationwide epidemic of warder-on-inmate violence.
Banda, 37, says he returned from the exercise yard one spring morning in 2009 to find other inmates had set his cell alight.
“The securities (sic) were shooting in the street (corridor). There were a lot of them and they locked eight of us in a cell.
“I tried to tell the warder* I wasn’t involved with the burning but he wouldn’t listen and threw tear gas under the door.
“Then he put the nose of his gun through the peephole in the door and shot me under my navel. When the securities took me out the cell, I couldn’t walk. Another warder* pushed me against the door frame and shocked me twice with a shield.
‘‘While I was lying on the floor outside, a security* beat me in the face with the back of his gun, assaulted and kicked me. Then they took us where the CCTV cameras can’t see you, tied our hands behind our backs, sprayed us with fire extinguishers and started kicking us again.”
Eventually, Banda was taken to the prison hospital where he was operated on before being locked in an isolation cell for three days without being charged with any offence. Though he says the on-duty nurse was instructed not to record that he’d been shot with a rubber bullet, she did. And Banda has the medical records to prove that a bullet left “a 12cm-long tunnel” in his abdomen.
In a country where torture is not a crime, stories like Banda’s are becoming increasingly commonplace. Assault and torture of prison inmates is part of a pervasive pattern – occurring in prisons countrywide.
This culture of violence and impunity among prison officials is exacerbated by the fact that the Correctional Services Act (CSA) permits the use of restraint mechanisms such as electronically activated stun belts, electric shock shields, leg irons, belly chains and batons. What’s more, the Correctional Matters Amendment Bill does not deal effectively with a key aspect of detainees’ experience – the use of force by correctional officials or their training in the use of restraint equipment.
Nor does the legislation define minimum or maximum force. Rather it permits the use of internationally condemned equipment that can be employed to deliberately violate inmates’ rights.
It’s probably not surprising that the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services’ (JICS) 2010/11 report records 2 276 complaints of “member-on-inmate” assaults as well as 5 841 complaints of inhumane treatment.
Says airport heist accused Uakarajee Maundu, 40, who was released on bail in May from the chronically overcrowded Medium A awaiting trial section of Johannesburg Prison: “Every day I saw warders beating up inmates for no apparent reason. They’re very, very violent.
“I saw these beatings every single day of the six years and one day I was inside.”
On an official visit to Sun City at the beginning of June, parliamentary correctional services committee chairman Vincent Smith noted: “During the 2011/12 financial year, six prisoners died as a result of unnatural deaths, three escaped and 214 were assaulted by warders.’’
Even more worrying are the findings of the 2010/11 DCS Annual Report that reveals a more than 200 percent increase in the number of assaults over the previous year.
“It’s not clear how many assaults resulted from inter-prisoner violence and how many were committed by officials on prisoners,” says Lukas Muntingh, Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative project co-ordinator.
“Regardless, these numbers indicate an unacceptably high level of violence. Questions need to be raised about DCS ability to ensure the safety of its prisoners.”
Warder-on-inmate violence takes many forms. The infamous tonfas, donkey piel or baton, widely accepted as having a legitimate law-enforcement function, is nevertheless, easily abused in the absence of clear regulations governing its use. For example, when blunt-force, soft-tissue head injury is recorded as the cause of death, it’s often consistent with baton abuse.
“Warders regularly complain that they don’t feel confident using batons because they’re not trained to distinguish between minimum and maximum force. They’re told not to use excessive force but don’t know what this means and there’s nothing in the legislation to explain it,” notes Just Detention International’s Sasha Gear.
“There’s urgent need for training in appropriate, responsible baton use as well as in conflict resolution skills to prevent an escalation of unnecessary violence.”
Perhaps, because of the ambiguity surrounding the definition of excessive force, routine searches for drugs, knives or cellphones regularly result in assault and torture.
Sbu Mntambo, who was released in March from KwaZulu-Natal’s Eshowe Correctional Centre, says the most common torture method was using tonfas to beat inmates on the soles of their feet: “The warders knew you wouldn’t be able to move for a week or two afterwards. Even so, the strip searches were the very worst thing that happened to me.
“The warders made us strip naked and lie on the wet concrete floor in a long chain. You were forced to have someone’s head in your arse and your head in someone else’s arse. It was disgusting. You weren’t allowed to move and if you didn’t co-operate, they’d beat you on your bum and back. If you raised your head, they’d hit you with a tonfas. Ordinary warders did these naked searches.”
Similar search methods employed during prison-wide mass-assaults by warders using shock-shields at Port Elizabeth’s St Alban’s prison, nearly 1 000km away, resulted in former inmate Bradley McCallum charging SA with human rights violations and torture at the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva and winning his 2010 case. As a result, 231 St Alban’s inmates have instituted proceedings against the Minister of Correctional Services and a landmark damages claim is set to be heard before the end of the year.
Though the outcome of the St Alban’s damages claim remains to be seen, contingent liabilities amounting to almost R1 billion reported in DCS 2010/2011 financial statements for “Bodily Injury/Assault” indicates that human rights violations have real financial implications.
High crime rates, overcrowded facilities and staff shortages probably also affect official behaviour. “There are rules regulating the use of restraint mechanisms,” notes Smith. “That these regulations are sometimes ignored does not detract from the fact that regulations exist.”
The 2010/2011 JICS report acknowledges a “disconcerting trend” relating to the number of deaths implicating officials who intervened in inmate-on-inmate assaults and employed “unnecessary” force. It singled out KZN as having the highest incidence of cases where official conduct could be regarded as infringing inmates’ constitutional rights to freedom and security.
Little seems to have changed since the 2006 Jali Commission documented extensive routine shock-shield abuse. While international consensus on the use of shock shields and stun guns is not as strong as consensus on the use of shock belts, international best practice specifies limited or no use of these devices.
“At Mangaung,” Banda recalls, “warders often called the special securities who came with dogs, shock shields and guns. They made you take off your clothes and wet you – the shock is more powerful when you’re wet. We called (them) ‘Ninjas’ because they only wore black and when they used shock shields, they wore balaclavas so you couldn’t see their faces.”
Mzwi Shabalala, another Mangaung inmate, concurs: “The warders are very violent here and use shock shields regularly. They take inmates to a single cell and beat the s*** out of them. I’ve had blood in my urine after being shocked at high voltage. Also, complaints about prison conditions never leave this place. I think they’re intercepted.”
The Wits Justice Project (WJP) has received similar reports from prisons throughout the country.
Nkosinathi Shandu, a former inmate of Empangeni’s Qalakabusha prison, says he knows two people who were paralysed after shock shields were used: “Just before my release in 2009, there was a guy who couldn’t walk a month after being shocked. I don’t know what happened to him.
“Another time an inmate was found with dagga. The warders made him take off his top and poured water on him. Three of them beat him with a donkey piel and two others shocked him while they questioned him. He was screaming in pain for about 15 minutes. I heard it all. Afterwards, inmates put him on a stretcher and took him to hospital. We expected to be beaten with a donkey piel every two months.”
Stun belts, generally used while transporting inmates, are even more problematic, particularly for remand detainees who are regularly transported to court hearings. Noel Stott of the Institute for Security Studies says that even if the belts are never triggered, simply wearing a device that delivers electric shock at any moment causes profound mental suffering. In addition, the urination and defecation that often accompany activation is humiliating and degrading.
Despite the UN Committee Against Torture’s recommendation to ban the use of stun belts, Muntingh says DCS purchased 900 additional devices in 2009.
Although SA ratified the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) in 1998 and has been obliged to criminalise torture in its domestic legislation, the one-time darling of the international human rights community has failed to fulfil these obligations. The good news is that the Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Bill – in the works since 2003 – was finally tabled before Parliament in April.
Though the constitution states that every South African has the fundamental right to be free from torture, a non-derogable right, at present warders implicated in torture can be charged only with assault. Warders implicated in the 2005 McCallum case have not been prosecuted and remain in their jobs.
DCS acting deputy commissioner: communication Koos Gerber says the DCS is re-opening disciplinary and criminal investigations into the McCallum case, instituting disciplinary action against implicated officials and will ensure completion of the recently opened SAPS investigation.
Not a moment too soon. After the Mangaung shooting, Banda, like McCallum, complained about his mistreatment to anyone he thought might listen – Independent Prison Visitors, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Public Service Commission, the Independent Complaints Directorate, the SA Human Rights Commission, the office of the Public Protector and the WJP.
He also laid charges of attempted murder and assault with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm at Bloemspruit police station, tried unsuccessfully to institute a civil damages claim and says he wrote four letters to former minister of correctional services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who eventually referred the matter to the Minister of Justice. He, in turn, referred it to Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa. Banda has heard nothing since.
He is a broken man. The bullet scar beneath his navel, though still clearly visible, has healed but his mental wounds remain. “I’m still psychologically stressed. I’ve taken pills from a psychiatrist from then until today. I asked to see a social worker three months ago but there’s no one here.”
Six months after Banda moved from Mangaung to Rooigrond, allegations of torture and physical abuse of inmates by Rooigrond officials led to strikes and protests. Now Banda says he’s lost all hope. All that sustains him is dreaming of his eventual release and the vegetable garden he intends planting when he finally goes home.
l Raphaely is a member of the Wits Justice Project which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice.
*Warders’ names are known to the WJP.