Prisoners go on rampage in protest over Covid-19, overcrowding

Chaos erupted when prisoners trashed Baviaanspoort Maximum Prison in Roodeplaat, north east of Pretoria, on Monday.

Prisoners banged the doors and windows of the prison, while those who were already outside their cells clashed with the prison warders and heavy handed Emergency Security Team (EST) members who were armed with military anti-riot safety shields.

Prisoners were responding to the call made by the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (Sapohr) last week that inmates should embark on a hunger strike and stage protests against overcrowding and to also voice their concerns over fears of contracting the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Video footage seen by City Press showed how tense the situation was – sniffer dogs were brought to the prison’s precinct where prisoners found themselves handled heavily by the officials and EST members.

According to inmates, the drama started in the morning when prison officials visited the cells to conduct strip searches.

However, warders were met with hostility from inmates who refused to be searched, claiming safety concerns.

“Prison officials wanted to search us today inside our cell and we refused because they’re not wearing gloves and masks. They then beat us up,” alleged an inmate at Baviaanspoort Prison.

Sapohr chief executive office and prisoners’ rights activist, Golden Miles Bhudu, said he was concerned about “excessive force” being used by prison officials on inmates as if it was a “world war” towards prisoners.

“I still state that the Minister of Correctional Services and Justice, Ronald Lamola, should be held responsible for any injuries or deaths of inmates or prison staff. I made a call to him and his commissioners that we need to sit down and discuss solutions on challenges experienced by inmates, but they are not prepared to talk. They should call me if they are ready to talk. As of now, prisoners are still going to strike until our demands are met,” said Bhudu.

The correctional department spokesperson, Singabakho Nxumalo, said the department had taken note of mobilisation efforts by Bhudu and other individuals to instigate inmates to revolt.

“This is totally irresponsible and reckless, and there is no need for such. [The department] is currently engaging with relevant law enforcement agencies to take necessary action.

“Following this incitement, inmates at Baviaanspoort Medium Correctional Centre (B Unit, Cell 7), in Gauteng, became disruptive, with one inmate lying on his back and refusing to move into his cell. Correctional officials had to use minimum force in order to bring about amity and order was restored. Reports of an inmate being shot at are only a fabrication as our officials do not utilise firearms inside the centres. Two inmates were treated for minor injuries by our healthcare officials and they are back in their cells. This incident has been reported accordingly to the relevant authorities and investigations are currently underway.”

Nxumalo emphasised that the department would continue embarking on “random search and seizure operations across the country to confiscate contraband from inmates and to ensure that rogue officials who aid the smuggling of contraband in our facilities are exposed and ultimately prosecuted.”

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