Prison’s dangerous gang culture exposed in court

2013-11-06 00:00

THE dangerous culture of gangsterism and violence at Westville Prison has been laid bare by a case in the Pietermaritzburg high court, which has heard details of plans of a mass escape.

The prison came under the spotlight last week when a raid unearthed 1 000 cellphones and other contraband in the possession of prisoners, and resulted in 12 warders being suspended.

Last Thursday a prisoner escaped onto a roof in Medium B section, and The Witness later reported that the prison’s CCTV system and metal detectors are not working.

In the case before court yesterday, the Correctional Services Department is opposing an application by prisoner Kerwin Bruce, who wants a transfer from Kokstad’s Ebongweni C-Max prison to Westville, or another prison where his family can see him.

In his affidavit Brian Mhlongo, KZN assistant director of Correctional Services, said Westville Prison is fraught with gang-related violence that is exceptionally difficult to control.

At Westville, Bruce had risen to the title of “general” of the “26” gang, he said.

Mhlongo said authorities had found knives and a cellphone in a cell, which were linked to Bruce and others. Implicated in an escape plot, Bruce was transferred to Kokstad on December 2 last year.

Bruce, who is serving a 44-year jail term for murder, robbery and kidnapping, says he enjoyed “A Group” privileges at Westville, which were immediately removed on his transfer to Kokstad, and he was classified a maximum security prisoner.

He complains that he was transferred without an inquiry or being given a chance to be heard.

But Mhlongo said the drastic step to transfer Bruce had been taken after the escape plot was uncovered last November, and amid fears that gang violence could erupt in the prison.

The cell was occupied by André Venter, a prisoner closely associated with Bruce.

During a “random search”, Venter was seen throwing away a bag containing knives and a cellphone, said Mhlongo.

The knives had been linked to Bruce.

The cellphone showed images of Venter brandishing a knife, a sketch of what appeared to be the layout of the prison courtyard and images of parts of the prison in restricted areas, including a restricted area frequently used as an escape exit.

Mhlongo said a catwalk photo was of “grave concern” because prison officials have to sign a register to enter the area.

He said the knives and images suggested that gang violence and a possible escape bid were “imminent”.

“In our experience the very fact that a gang member has access to dangerous weapons suggests that a gang-related attack is imminent,” he said.

Mhlongo said Bruce had declined to co-operate or make a statement ahead of his transfer.

He said Bruce had appeared before a parole board in Kokstad on August 22 this year, but was found to be unsuitable for parole.

The case was adjourned to December 6.

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