WATCH: Prisons are ‘crime headquarters’

2019-01-08 14:50
New Prison inmates sit on the floor with their hands on their heads during the raid on Sunday night.

New Prison inmates sit on the floor with their hands on their heads during the raid on Sunday night. (Nokuthula Ntuli)

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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 KwaZulu-Natal 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 Monday 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.

New prison raid

Police officers make offenders line up against the wall to be patted down for unauthorised items during the raid on Sunday night.

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.

After an hour, the phrases, “I don’t know who it belongs to” and “It’s not mine, I swear”, started to sound like a chorus from a popular song.

Those found with traditional medicine claimed it was for some severe ailment that professional doctors just couldn’t help them with. They all denied that their muthi could have anything to do with the belief that it could help them get favourable court or parole decisions.

New prison raid

A police officer searches a cell during the raid.

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. “While it’s still continuing at a small scale, it’s a phenomenon that we are observing that there are fewer incidents of stabbing and less incidents of finding knives,” Nxele added. “It’s not that it’s not happening but it’s reducing.”

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.

New prison raid

Officials count dagga buds wrapped in paper, called a 'sloop'found in a cell during the raid.

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. They also need to help the police identify those who are involved in the manufacturing and dealing,” 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. So this issue is receiving attention at the highest level of the department and government,” he said.

Prison raids seize contraband

Prison warders who collude with criminals could find themselves trading their brown uniform for inmates’ orange outfits.

Correctional Services’ provincial commissioner, Mnikelwa Nxele, said some of the contraband found during the raids at prisons was smuggled in by, or with the assistance of, employees of the department.

Nxele added that such conduct would not be tolerated, saying that it was wrong for a “few rotten potatoes”, who were trusted to ensure the well-being of inmates, to instead help perpetrate crime.

New prison raid

More than 240 law enforcement officers swooped on unsuspecting inmates on Sunday night in a prison raid that lasted until the early hours of Monday.

The contraband, including cellphones and drugs, was seized during prison raids around KwaZulu-Natal, including at New Prison in Pietermaritzburg.

“We want to rely on these continuous searches to make sure we remove the drugs, but also to ensure that those drugs don’t get inside in the first place.

“To ensure that our members are conscientised of their commitment to serve their people to ensure that those kind of things, like smuggling drugs, are not associated with them,” Nxele said.

Some of the unauthorised items found during the raids, such as drugs, were referred to the police for criminal investigation.

Nxele said warders who were found guilty of colluding with criminals must not only be fired but also face the full wrath of the law.

He added that being an inmate was not easy, even though they had food, shelter, a bed and medical care, so it was doing them an injustice to exploit their difficult situation by introducing them to a life of drugs.

“Most of the people who are in correctional services come from broken families and poor families. And yet someone finds a market so that they [inmates] are further burdened with drugs.

“Many of those inmates who are using drugs are going to have their lives destroyed because they are going to be locked in a life of crime, so even when they come out they are going to commit crime and come back here,” said Nxele.

New prison raid

An inmate at New Prison watches as an officer searches his clothes.

He added that there should be accountability with regards to those who smuggling cellphones, saying:

“Those who are identified should be dealt with harshly.”

Nxele said there was money exchanged for every mobile phone brought inside the prison.

Loo paper, sweets and art

More than three dozen rolls of toilet paper, six packets of Regal chocolates and other sweets, chips, biscuits, canned pilchards, hot chocolate, as well as jars of mayonnaise and tomato sauce.

These were some of the items found in the possession of one inmate at New Prison and unlike most of his peers, he didn’t deny they were his.

“I basically live here so I need all of these things,” he told the correctional services Emergency Support Team during Sunday’s raid.

The man, whose name is known to The Witness, also had toothpicks, several pairs of shoes, new dishcloths and an unopened pack of 12 spoons.

New prison raid

Some of the contraband discovered during the raid.

Asked what he did with all the sweets and junk food, he simply said: “I eat them, they are nice.”

The man denied that he was running a mini-spaza shop, saying he didn’t need to sell anything because he didn’t need the money.

He seemed to have an answer for everything until traditional medicine, wrapped in a newspaper, was found at the bottom of his food stash. At first he said it was for diabetes but when the officers pointed at his sweets and chocolates collection, he then changed his tune and said it was for a skin condition.

Not far from his bed was another inmate who owned six belts. He said five of them were now too small for him as he had been gaining weight since he arrived at New Prison. “You have to give away some of them or throw them out, you can’t keep collecting belts,” warned one of the police officers.

Beautiful sculptures of wood and soap were also found in some of the cells. The owners kept watch on them as the raid proceeded and protested when one of the officers threatened to throw them in the bin.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg
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