History of the Old Prison

2016-12-09 10:38
A photo of the Old Prison from The Witness archives.

A photo of the Old Prison from The Witness archives. (File)

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The Old Pietermaritzburg Prison was built in 1862 at 4 Burger Street, and has been associated with several prominent prisoners.

The Witness archives reveal that some of South Africa’s greats such as Langalibalele KaMtimkulu, King Dinizulu kaCetshwayo, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba and his son Manilal were incarcerated at the prison.

In more recent times, local political figures and anti-apartheid activists were also held here, including Harry Gwala, Archie Gumede, Peter Brown, Hans Meiden, Derrick Marsh, Moses Mabhida and A.S. Chetty.

The site was commissioned in 1862, with the E-block being the first building to be constructed on site. The cell block has been declared a national monument and is one of the oldest buildings in Pietermaritzburg.

The Execution Block was constructed in 1934 and had the sole purpose of hosting the gallows and high-security cells. Although there are no confirmed hangings there, records from the 1960s show that information regarding hangings was sent to Pretoria. The Execution Block also houses one of the torture rooms — a room that was so dark that you could barely see your hand in front of your face.

When the blocks in the prison were originally built, the cells were designed to house prisoners individually. However, as inmate numbers increased, it became common for each cell to accommodate between 10 and 12 prisoners, who slept on mats instead of beds. Each cell had two buckets — for water and “toilets”.

The cookhouse was constructed in 1872. A dining hall was never built. Instead, inmates experienced “open-air dining” in all weather in an area clearly marked with white lines between the chapel and the “white section”. Former prisoners remember this area as being a common spot for gang fights.

The cell walls were covered with graffiti of all kinds — names of friends, girlfriends and mothers, prayers, threats, lewd remarks, violent images and carefully drawn insignia.

During apartheid the number of political detainees and awaiting-trial prisoners held here increased dramatically, having been arrested for actual or perceived actions against the apartheid government, with a number of them being leaders of liberation groups. They were housed in The Execution Block. They were segregated from prisoners serving non-political sentences, for fear that they would pass on “revolutionary ideas” and most were detained without being charged, under the 90-day detention law. This law allowed for political prisoners to be kept in solitary confinement for three months and then re-detained at the end of the period, all without being formally charged.

During the eighties however, a new prison was built and in 1989 the old prison was closed down when the New Prison in Napierville was opened.

The old building complex stood empty for several years until 1991 when the site was handed over to a group of churches in the city, working together under the name of Project Gateway.

The centre houses a number of educational classes.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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