Riots rock Mangaung prison

2013-08-18 14:00

With warders on strike, inmates stab two guards and burn cells over mistreatment

The Mangaung Correctional Centre was rocked by riots this week after half its warders went on strike.

On Monday, the warders called in sick and by Friday they had not returned to work.

The prison is run by security company G4S.

On Friday morning, G4S management sent text messages to the warders who called in sick, warning them their absence amounted to an “unlawful strike” and ordering them to return to work that day.

The ultimatum was ignored.

On Friday, G4S was granted an interim relief order by the Labour Court, which declared the strike unprotected in terms of the Labour Act.

The warders were also ordered to immediately cease the strike and return to work.

The court order came at the end of a violent week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, inmates set three cells and a work station alight.

Numerous fights broke out and inmates stabbed two members of the security team who were called in to restore order.

The prison’s 3 000 inmates rioted because they were locked up in their cells for 23 hours for days, with some claiming they missed meals.

A warder who didn’t call in sick and who asked to remain anonymous because he feared losing his job said: “I do not feel safe. There are only two people working on the emergency-response team. Management is sending administrative and vocational staff into the units, but they are not properly trained or certified as prison warders. (Prison management) offered them R250 to work in the prison units. The situation is dangerous and I fear for my life.”

Esmeralda Coutts, the mother of an inmate detained in one of the units where the fire broke out, told City Press: “(My son) told me they were being locked up in the cell the whole day, and inmates were missing meals and going hungry.”

It is not the first time riots have erupted at the Free State prison. In 2009, 40 inmates set 10 cells alight, barricaded themselves in a unit and held three warders hostage. The warders were later dismissed for talking to the media.

Then in November last year, two prisoners held a doctor and a nurse hostage. They demanded better access to healthcare and wanted to be transferred to a prison closer to their loved ones.

“The safety of G4S warders is a top priority for us,” said Laurence Msinto, regional secretary for the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru). Popcru has not endorsed the employees’ decision to call in sick, though it has declared a dispute with G4S after salary negotiations, which started in October last year, stalled completely.

G4S is refusing to disclose any financial information. An arbitration decision of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration is expected in September.

Grace Molatedi, the Free State deputy regional commissioner for the department of correctional services, said: “Inmates at Mangaung prison are limited in their freedom of movement. They are let out of their cell for meals and one hour of exercise a day, but nothing else.

“The contractor (G4S) has not mentioned any problems or irregularities to us, such as warders’ fears,” Molatedi added. She said on Friday that calm had not yet been restored to the prison.

“We are working hard to address the challenges in the prison.”

G4S declined to comment, saying it was contractually bound to forward all media enquiries to the department.

The matter returns to the Labour Court on September 19.

» Hopkins is a journalist at the Wits Justice Project

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