Prison cases hard to swallow

2010-04-22 22:32

Cape Town - Inmates who deliberately swallow lengths of wire and items such as screws and toothbrushes, present a "troublesome" challenge to prison doctors, according to a report in the latest SA Medical Journal.

The report, based on a study of medical records of 1 112 prisoners at the Mangaung maximum security prison outside Bloemfontein, was authored by University of the Free State surgeon Professor Samuel Smit and Mangaung clinic manager Frans Kleinhans.

They found that over a five-year period there had been 45 incidents of swallowing foreign objects, although Smit explained that most of them were repeat swallowings by individuals.

The record for an inmate was 24 separate incidents of "foreign body ingestion" over three years.

The most common objects swallowed were lengths of wire and screws which would show up on X-rays, Smit and Kleinhans said in the journal.

"Inmates favour radio-opaque objects because they want proof of their actions," they said.

"Sometimes the sharp ends of wires or screws were bent over or covered with plastic before being swallowed.

"Swallowing is done as a circus artist swallows a sword."

They said some of the items that prisoners swallowed, such as pins, glass, short nails and screws, might pass through the prisoner's entire digestive system without causing problems.

In other cases, forceps, an endoscope or surgical removal were necessary.

"Although representing a small proportion of the consultations, the deliberate swallowing of foreign objects by inmates remains a troublesome, time-consuming and emotional situation," they said.

Swallowing items appeared to be the "surgical equivalent" of a hunger strike; a challenge to the system.

Once prisoners became adjusted to prison life, they stopped this practice.

Smit, who is a contract surgeon at the prison, said some of the cases he had encountered were "really surprising".

"How they get these things down, I don't know," he said.