Crime orchestrated from behind bars

2019-01-16 06:00

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SOME of the heists and murders committed around the province are orchestrated inside prison cells by inmates who are already serving sentences for other crimes.

This was the concern shared by the KZN Correctional Services commissioner, Mnikelwa Nxele, following a raid at Pietermaritzburg’s New Prison on Sunday night.

More than 100 cellphones, drugs, makeshift weapons, money and home-brewed beer were among the illegal items seized during the raid.

Some of the inmates tried to resist having their possessions rummaged through, but were quickly advised to co-operate, with a thinly-veiled warning that things could turn ugly as the search was not negotiable.

Nxele said the raid was part of the nationwide Operation Vala — a joint initiative between the Department of Correctional Services and the police.

The searches were conducted, he added, as part of ensuring the safety of prison warders, the inmates themselves and members of the public who might be targets for criminal activities planned by those in custody.

“We also want to ensure that there are no escapes that are effected,” Nxele said.

More than 240 law enforcement officers swooped on the unsuspecting inmates on Sunday in a search that lasted until the early hours of yesterday morning.

While it was after 10 pm, most of the prisoners appeared to have been awake prior to their arrival. One of the officers told The Witness that this was because the “trading” in contraband, as well as the planning of other criminal activities, often happened when the lights were supposed to be out.

The inmates were ordered out of their cells into the recreational hall and had to sit on the floor with their hands on their heads during the search.

Four teams stripped mattresses, untied knotted linen, unscrewed the lighting fixtures and sinks, rummaged through tobacco leaves and traditional medicines, felt through the hemlines of pants and jackets, sniffed every bottle with suspicious contents, and strip-searched the inmates.

Even medication supposedly prescribed by doctors was searched and R100 notes were found hidden in an asthma inhaler.

“The inhaler is mine but I swear I don’t have any money, someone must have hidden it there,” said the owner, a man in his fifties.

Denial seemed to be the name of the game as most inmates denied owning even the articles that were found in the clothes they were wearing.

Nxele said the provincial team started its raids in Westville last week and had to come to New Prison because it is one of their biggest facilities. He added that the centre was also facing challenges of overcrowding as it was sitting at 180% of capacity with at least 4 100 inmates.

The centre has run out of beds and some prisoners sleep on mattresses on the floor.

Nxele said they were working on addressing the issue of overcrowding.

While there has been a decrease in the number of weapons found during raids on the correctional facilities around the province, he said it was concerning to observe the recent increases in drugs and cellphones.

He attributed the decline in weapons to the clamping down on gang activity within prisons.

The increase in drug-related activities within prisons was alarming, Nxele said, adding he believed that drug lords had targeted correctional services as commercial centres where they could make a lot of money.

He said many offenders were either using or dealing in drugs, some of which were brought in by the warders or members of the public visiting the inmates.

“This requires a collective resolve from the community because we are at the end of it here. So the community needs to see itself as a partner in a fight against drug-related activities ...” Nxele said.

Commenting on the increase in the number of cellphones, he said the department had a pilot project to curb this in its Umzinto centre. It was a promising initiative, he added, as it helped the warders identify the cell in which the phone was and track its movement.

The project was not, however, rolled out to other centres due to contractual problems with the service provider. “Cellphones may be seen to be used just for communication but offenders are doing all kinds of nefarious things, including planning crime that is committed out there ...” he said.

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