Tales of torture at prisons heard at Cape Town seminar

2016-11-17 21:03


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Cape Town - CCTV footage of prison warders setting Rottweilers on a prisoner was so shocking that it would have led to the collapse of South Africa's global extradition treaties, a prison torture seminar heard on Thursday.

“I don't know if it is torture. It is certainly assault and might well be murder, or culpable homicide,” retired Constitutional Court judge Johan van der Westhuizen told delegates at the seminar, hosted by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) at the Helderstroom prison outside Caledon.

Van der Westhuizen is the JICS’s recently-appointed inspecting judge.

"The worrying thing is not that it happened, only. This material has been around for more than a year, without any significant progress," he said of the incident on January 4, 2015, during a riot at the prison.

When Van der Westhuizen took over the position, he was informed that no progress had been made in the investigation.

Both police and the National Prosecuting Authority had not acted. The JICS wrote to correctional services commissioner Zac Modise about it. 

Eventually, it reached the point where correctional services demanded progress reports.

Van der Westhuizen said he even threatened to take it to the media if there were no answers.

The NPA is now considering opening a case, he said.

He demanded that the officials present give him an update on the case, but got no solid answers on whether there had been suspensions. 

Prison gangs

Delegates were shown a harrowing video based on research at the Helderstroom and Brandvlei prisons which showed fast, violent attacks, initiated by both warders and prisoners.

One prisoner explained that he wanted to be transferred to a prison in Port Elizabeth. He was told he would get it if he attacked a prison official.

Prison gang culture was a major cause of violence in prison and was exacerbated by extreme overcrowding, delegates heard. 

Gang membership offered protection, but to prove themselves, would-be members had to attack a correctional services official. This was often where the violence started, leaving understaffed warders to break up attacks. 

Van der Westhuizen said he understood that law enforcement required force, but the Constitution limited this.

The test differed in all situations. However, he could not understand how “necessary force” could result in two broken legs and a broken jaw. He was referring to another case he was privy too.

He was amazed to find that the prisoner victims did not want to make a big deal about such cases.

The prisoner with the broken jaw had laughed about how an official had “klapped” him on the side of his head, he explained.

Criminologist Dr Elizabeth Grobler said the highly-organised numbers gang structures of the 26s, 27s and 28s kept inmates in line, or required them to prove their standing, often by spilling blood. 

No proper counselling

She noted that eight correctional services officials caught up in a riot at Brandvlei in January 2015, had experienced extreme violence before, and had not received proper counselling. One saw a colleague cut his own throat with a steak knife. 

Most still had post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the Brandvlei riot. On the day they would have operated on adrenaline, even though they had received “textbook” training because they were facing people from highly dysfunctional backgrounds.

Modise said the prison service was demilitarised in 1996, but gangs retained and upheld their own rank structure.

One of the department's frustrations was that other than revoking prisoners’ privileges, they were limited in how they could discipline them.


Read more on:    correctional services  |  torture

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