People's Post

Inside Pollsmoor prison

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The care unit for expecting women and women over 60 at Pollsmoor Prison’s Female Centre.
The care unit for expecting women and women over 60 at Pollsmoor Prison’s Female Centre.

With a prison population of 7 079, Pollsmoor has many stories to tell. And while the ones on overcrowding and gang violence need to be told, they do tend to drown out those that speak of regret and atonement.

“Most people think it is just bad people who are in prison. Good people also end up in jail. Sometimes it only takes one bad decision,” says Lewies Davids, the manager of communications at Pollsmoor prison.

People’s Post joined him, with a group of social work students and social workers, during a walk-through of Pollsmoor medium C and the female centre on Tuesday 19 November. 

One of these stories belongs to Ruth (a pseudonym).

At eight months pregnant, she finds herself in the care unit for expecting women and women over 60.

The 29-year-old is serving a three-month sentence for possession of drugs and suspicion of smuggling.

This being her first offence, she got a R3 000 fine or a three-month jail sentence.

Ruth says she simply could not afford to pay the fine. Besides the baby on the way, she also has three other children who depend on her.

With the father out of the picture and the prospect of a fourth mouth to feed, Ruth says she felt like she had no choice but to agree when her sister, who she was visiting in prison, suggested she smuggle in drugs.

Ironically, Ruth entered Pollsmoor as her sister left.

Ruth says she now deeply regrets her decision and if she could go back in time she would definitely not have done it. Her release is set for Sunday 2 February.

“When I get out I am going to take my children and return to my family home in Port Elizabeth. With the help of my mother, father and brother I hope to start over,” she says. If Ruth’s plan works out, she will be one of the lucky few. 

Davids says reintegration into society is one of the biggest challenges inmates face once they leave prison. He says many of the offenders have been abandoned by their families.

“They have paid the price for their crime but often their families, their communities don’t want them back. That is why our slogan is ‘Corrections is a societal responsibility’.”

He encourages family members to visit their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in jail.

“That visit twice a month is sometimes the only thing they look forward to,” says Davids. After a tour of medium C and the female centre, it is easy to understand why.

Of the thousands held at Pollsmoor, 4 500 are awaiting trial. Repeat offenders and suspects accused of aggressive crime are held while investigations are ongoing. Others remain in prison either because they can’t get bail (due to the violent nature of the crime) or because they can’t afford it.

While the time awaiting trial is not supposed to exceed 24 months, it can stretch to six years or even longer depending on whether cases get postponed in the courts (for example, if a witness fails to appear).

Because of its central location in Tokai, Pollsmoor prison serves as the main gateway for suspects entering the prison system in the Western Cape.

It is fed by 26 courts and 56 police stations.

All of these factors, combined with South Africa’s socio-economic ills, have led to Pollsmoor being labelled the most overcrowded prison in the province. 

Medium C, also called the release centre, houses male offenders who are either serving short sentences or are almost at the end of long terms.

Here, 26 beds are squeezed into one cell roughly the size of a single garage, with one bathroom to share. Apparently, this is one of the less overcrowded units at Pollsmoor. 

At 15:00 sharp, inmates get shut into their cells.

As the light starts to leave the room, so does the authority of the wardens.

This is when the underground order of the Number Gangs (the 26’s, the 27’s and the 28’s) sets in – an old prison culture dating back to the early 1900s.

The doors will only open again at 06:00.

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