What it's like in a South African prison

What does a normal day look like in one of South Africa’s prisons? Do they still sew mailbags? What’s on the menu? What sort of exercise possibilities are there? What are the chances of getting a single cell?

Horror stories abound about prison gangs, rape, warders who turn a blind eye and desperate overcrowding. Especially in the prisons for men.

And now that Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years behind bars at the Kgosi Mampuru II prison - albeit in the hospital ward - we take a look at what the general population faces on a daily basis, and what differences there will be for Oscar. 

The state and cost of SA prisons

According to Department of Correctional Services statistics for 2014 there are 112 467 sentenced prisoners in SA. Only 2% — or 2 663 — of sentenced prisoners are female, compared to 109 804 male prisoners.

According to a report on the state of South Africa’s prisons, released in April 2014 by the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders, the sentenced prisoner population is 79% black, 18% coloured, 2% white and 1% Asian.

There is a disproportionately high number of coloured offenders and a low number of white offenders compared to South Africa’s demographics, with each of these groups making up 9% of the national population.

According to an article in BDLive regarding the report, the lower white prisoner population is "as a result of relatively better socio-economic circumstances and life opportunities".

In terms of sentencing trends, just over half of prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or less, while there has been a big spike in those serving life sentences.

In 1995, 433 prisoners were serving life sentences and in 2010 there were 9 947 — an increase of 2,197%. Now 9% of all prisoners are serving life sentences.

The research shows that the daily price tag of accommodating a prisoner is R329.20. This amounts to just under R10 000 a month, more than R118 500 a year and more than R2.9m for a 25-year sentence.

In comparison, according to the 2011 census, the average household income is R103 204 a year, or R8 600 a month.

The bulk of the correctional services budget goes to security.

Prison life day in, and day out

But prison routines and activities vary for different categories of prisoners, depending on factors such as the number of staff on duty, whether it’s during the week or the weekend, how many prisoners there are and so on.

According to the books, this is what a day in prison is supposed to look like:

Wake-up call

At seven o’ clock cell doors open and warders do the first roll-call for the day. By that time prisoners are supposed to have washed, dressed themselves and cleaned their cells.

There is no smell of bacon and eggs as inmates are marched to breakfast. They are greeted with a spread of porridge and coffee or juice.

The next meal will be served at 11 o’ clock. Lunch consists of a form of meat or protein, a starch and a vegetable.

ReadWho’s on trial, Oscar or SA's prisons?

Daily activities

All inmates are required to attend programmes aimed at rehabilitation. There is supposed to be an emphasis on sports activities and education and training. However, this tends to be largely theoretical as overcrowding places huge restrictions on activities and rehabilitation programmes.

While inmates may also be obliged to work, fewer than 10% have this opportunity. And while it is required that inmates have at least one hour of exercise per day, this might not happen when there is a shortage of staff.

Medium-security prisoners have more opportunities: they are able to work on agricultural projects, they can study, take part in rehabilitation programmes, and have more visiting rights.

Maximum-security prisoners have very limited privileges, but they certainly cannot leave the complex to work, and also have very limited visiting rights.

Single cell?

Most prisons have single and communal cells. A double cell is rare. Some prisons have triple cells. Communal cells house anything from 24 to 80 prisoners.

Inmates can apply to be assigned to a single cell. Factors such as whether you are studying and whether you might be in danger from the other prisoners are taken into consideration. Most prisoners land in a communal cell.


Visitation for sentenced inmates depends on the category in which they are classified. Visits can be limited to twice per month for twenty minutes. Some of these visits can also be exchanged for telephone calls. Access to incoming and outgoing post is unlimited, but it is subject to censorship.

Image: Visiting hours notice at Kgosi Mampuru, from

visiting hours

Health care

Access to health care is generally severely limited. In most cases healthcare officials are not available. District surgeons are sometimes only available once a week.

Although Government has vowed to address the problem, in the past prison staff members generally have not had the capacity to administer drugs to inmates. Another recurring problem has been that medication had often reached its expiry date. In fact, access to health care is purely theoretical in the case of many of our prisons. 

Read: Prisons in SA are a hotspot for AIDS


At 3 o’clock inmates have their last meal of the day. The menu for supper varies – mostly it consists of six slices of bread and a beverage of some sort. Inmates are escorted back to their cells to finish their meals there.

The last roll call for the day is done and inmates are then locked up. For the remainder of the day and night inmates are left to their own devices.

Oscar Pistorius' home for the time being

Oscar Pistorius, who was sentenced to five years in prison for the shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp, will stay at in the hospital wing of the Kgosi Mampuru II prison, formerly known as Pretoria Central Prison. Controversial businessman Radovan Krejcir is currently housed at the hospital prison and the prison itself is also the home of apartheid death squad leader Eugene de Kock, known as 'Prime Evil'.

It goes without saying that he will be sheltered from the violence, extortion, lack of sanitation and overcrowding in the general population, but he will be subjected to a similar routine. 

Pretoria Central Prison, now known as Kgosi Mampuru 11 prison. 


Will things improve?

According to Justice and Correctional Services minister, Michael Masuth, who spoke to delegates at African Correction Day at Kgosi Mampuru prison in Pretoria in September 2014, the Correctional Services Department had developed a white paper on corrections in 2005 that promoted a human rights culture in the prison system.

The SABC reported that in 2014 the department approved the white paper on remand detention in South Africa, to close the gap left by the white paper on corrections approved in 2005.

The department had developed various strategies to address the issue of over-crowding and to provide effective primary health care to all prisoners. 

The department would ensure 64% of offenders completed correctional programmes and that 80% would be enrolled in education and skills development programmes.

Read: The world reacts to Oscar Pistorius' sentencing in Social Media

Oscar will stay in the hospital wing

Zach Modise, who has worked in the prison service for 35 years, was questioned by Oscar Pistorius' defence about conditions at the prison as well as the problem of tuberculosis among inmates.

Modise conceded that there was only one resident doctor and five psychologists for every 7 000 inmates at Kgosi Mampuru II prison. He added that Pistorius would have access to a cell phone and that a suitability test would be done to determine if he had specific needs.

Oscar will have a cupboard, bed, mattress, basin and toilet, access to a shower with a handrail, and a gym as well as sports activities such as soccer and boxing. 

Modise further testified that the hospital section of the Kgosi Mampuru prison in Pretoria had single cells and bath facilities and that there were 22 cells in the wing, of which seven were occupied. 

Probation officer Annette Vergeer, who testified for the defence, felt that prison would 'break' Pistorius because of his disability and psychological problems. 

Read: Is Oscar really a broken man

The prison is well known for a vicious gang culture and numerous beatings, male rape and murder cases have been reported there in the media.

In an interview with DStv's Channel 199, Caroline Raphaely of the Wits Justice Project concurred with much of what Vergeer said and adds that though Correctional Services has a policy for disabled prisoners, the policy and practice are poles apart.

Image: Oscar Pistorius leaves the Pretoria High Court after he is sentenced on October 21, 2014, in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo by Herman Verwey/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images.

Read more

Who’s on trial, Oscar or SA's prisons?
Is it worth sending Oscar to jail?
What if Oscar Pistorius goes to jail?

External links:

Diary of a South African prisoner, sentenced to life imprisonment
Inside the Kgosi Mampuru prison, from 
Two hours at Pretoria Central Prison by the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime 

Sources: Information from DA spokesperson for Correctional Services, James Selfie, SABC News and Business Day Live.

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