Prison gang violence leaves Brandvlei warders traumatised - expert

2016-11-21 14:28
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Worcester - A study conducted after a riot at Brandvlei prison last year has shed some light on the activities of prison gangs and how they may affect the warders who have to keep the peace.

On January 4, 2015, an inmate died and at least six others were injured during violence at Brandvlei Correctional Services.

A criminologist believes the episode did not stem directly from prison conditions as originally thought, but was about an outsider's need to prove himself to a gang.

Speaking at a Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) seminar in Helderstroom, outside Caledon, last week, Dr Liza Grobler told delegates the Brandvlei incident was sparked by a temporary prison transfer.

According to Grobler, another prison was undergoing renovations so a group of prisoners were temporarily moved from there to Brandvlei prison, outside Worcester.

Once at Brandvlei one of the newcomers claimed to be a "judge", a term used in the 26s, 27s and 28s gang parlance.

Maintaining control

Grobler explained that the gangs' lines of command and leaders' titles apportion clear roles.

For example the "governor" holds the gang's commodities, the "Germiston" recruits new gang members and "Die Glas" (the binoculars) watches every move and knows all the gossip.

"All of this is meant to arrange and maintain a level of control and privileges while behind bars."

The title "judge" carries weight and so the newcomer had to prove himself.

There had been a freeze on "promotions" within the gangs at the time, so the Brandvlei inmates did not believe his claim that he was a "judge".

There was only one way to settle it, according to Grobler's research, and that was to attack a Department of Correctional Services (DCS) official to establish his credentials.

Nightmares, aggression

Retired Constitutional Court judge and JICS Inspecting Judge Johann van der Westhuizen listened intently as Grobler explained that some of the warders who were involved in that clash were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result. She said, in her opinion, the warders may already have had untreated PTSD at the time of the incident.

Nightmares, disrupted sleep patterns, aggression, snapping at relatives and punching a wall to avoid crying were some of the symptoms described by eight of the warders Grobler interviewed after the clash.

According to Grobler, in the group of officials she interviewed, she found that before that incident one had been taken hostage twice, another had been stabbed with a home-made knife and yet another had watched a colleague cut his own throat with a steak knife.

Another witnessed a young prisoner being raped by an HIV-positive inmate.

It became clear to Grobler that the PTSD was a result of where the officials worked and that not all were getting the help they needed.

"It is very real in this environment," she said.

Challenge for inexperienced warders

In the US, Grobler said, a study found that 31% of correctional services officials suffer from PTSD compared with 14.3% of New York's firefighters and 3% of the general population.

An equivalent study was not available for South Africa.

She said the warders told her that managing gang conflict is more difficult for inexperienced correctional services officers because they do not yet know how to read all the early warning signs.

One was when an offender emerges from the cell "Britished".

In prison language this describes a prisoner who emerges from his cell padded under his clothes with towels and anything else he can find ahead of an expected fight so that his injuries will be less severe.

She said prison officials feel they do not get the support they need and that management is more concerned with its image in the media and the welfare of offenders than it is with its staff.

Grobler said although the warders were trained in handling conflict, they wanted hands-on practice in mock situations so they can learn better ways to respond.

'Shouted and sworn at terribly'

Among the equipment requests they made was a replacement for batons.

She said the officials don't feel protected by these because "they slip out of their hands when they are covered in blood".

In a documentary screened at the seminar an interviewee said belonging to a prison gang afforded a level of protection not easily available.

Another explained that if a prisoner wanted a transfer they knew they could be removed from that prison if they attacked somebody.

The documentary showed quick clashes between officials and inmates, sometimes with officials throwing the first punch.

One prison official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told News24 that if a prisoner is being picked on by other prisoners the prisoner will not complain to authorities because they will be bullied even more.

"So they do it another way. They will stand and shout and swear at one of the officials, and a big fight will start with the others," he said, pointing at his colleague sitting next to him.

"She knows all about it. She has been shouted and sworn at terribly, and then there is chaos around her. And it is just to get moved to another section or another cell."

Read more on:    department of correctional services  |  cape town  |  crime  |  prisons

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