Tosh, watch your words: Rape of men in prison is no laughing matter

2012-10-18 19:26

Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison (now called Pollsmoor Admissions Centre, as if it’s some sort of hotel) is flanked on one boundary by the Blue Route Highway. I often drive past the immense tracts of prison land, sometimes casting a cursory glance at the buildings, behind barbed wire and fences, in what is really an idyllic rural setting.

The prison, along with Steenberg golf course, the vineyards, and luxury housing in the leafy suburb of Tokai, forms part of an abstract landscape.

As far as the inmates go, bearing in mind the ruined lives of countless victims and their suffering families, why we should care a jot about what happens to them once they’re locked away? The purpose of incarceration, after all, is to curtail freedom, to get criminals off the streets so they can no longer wreak havoc on civil society.

Why should McIntosh Polela then, the spokesperson for the Hawks, be called to account for his tweet: I trust Jub Jub’s supporters gave him a very large jar of Vaseline to take to prison.

Yeah, maybe we should allow criminals to 'rot in hell', but in a nutshell this is why we should care, about what happens to men in prison: on release, men raped in prison are likely to reclaim their manhood by raping vulnerable women and children in society. 90% of prisoners return to society, with a recidivism rate of at least 88%. After reasserting their power – robbing, raping, killing- these repeat offenders end up recycled back into the system, swelling the ranks of abusers perpetrating more of the same. It’s a vicious cycle.

In his book A country at war with itself, author and researcher Anthony Altbeker advocates a stronger stance against crime, specifically that more criminals should be put behind bars. However, we have to ensure that we don’t create monsters infinitely more damaged than the men who were first put away. For the sake of the prisoner who can reform (and what about the petty criminal, the innocent?), and the sake of the general public, basic humanity of inmates should be protected.

I have on my desk, as part of my research for a crime novel, Ross Kemp’s book titled Gangs/ My encounters with the toughest criminals on the streets, from Rio to Moscow. He describes his reaction to the infamous Pollsmoor Max as an assault on his senses: ‘…What hits you first is the smell – a mix of fear, sweat and dirt, the hot, all pervasive smell…Then there’s the noise – the back-ground roar of thousands of caged men, cut through with shouts and screams.’

This description may be dramatic, but South African expert Heather Parker Lewis similarly describes Pollsmoor in her aptly named The Prison Speaks: Men’s Voices/ South African Jails. She calls it ‘a dark, degrading, labyrinthine, a grossly overcrowded premises’.

In her book God’s Gangsters? (an exploration of the Number Gangs in South African prisons) she writes:‘The prison system in South Africa dehumanises, brutalises and infantilises its inmates; men, once in prison, are denied meaningful roles and usually joining a Number Gang is the only way they can get respect from, not only other prisoners, but, unfortunately, also the warders.’

The short-coming of the South African prison system then, is that, in the main, it is run by the Number Gangs with their violent history that stretches back to the eighteen-hundreds, with Nongoloza as the founding member.

Correctional Services, by all accounts, is unable to coordinate any sort of concerted initiative to undermine the Number Gangs - the 26’s, 27’s and 28’s – although they have been proclaiming success in this area since 1912!

In an interview with Parker Lewis, who researched prison gang culture for ten years, she says, ‘There’s lots of Imbizos, but nothing effective is done to stop gangs from running the show. The upper echelons allow gang culture to grow from strength to strength. 80% of the prison population boasts gang affiliation and the rest are influenced by gang decisions at every level of their lives.

‘Although warders are told they are part of a rehabilitation team, they discover soon enough their role as mere custodians. They turn a lock and watch from the sidelines. A warder’s main job is to ensure there are no riots - which they do by allowing gangs to run the prison.’

Not only do incarcerated gang members run the prison, but they run their businesses from prison, using smuggled cell phones (although this is now disputed) and outside contacts; new inmates, initiated into gangs, carry on with gang activity on release. Stabbings, drive-by shootings, drug dealing all happens in the name of the Number either directly or indirectly. Donovan Krige and Dawid ‘Doggy Dog’ Ruiters of the Flower Gang, for example, viciously murdered four people, including a mother and her four year old daughter, in order to return to prison as high-ranking 27’s generals.

Considering the power of the Number, and the powerlessness of authorities –  it's common practice for warders to be manipulated into service for the gangs, which affirms the gangs power and reduces the status of prison staff  -  one begins to understand how defenceless prisoners are. Turning a blind eye to the sexual atrocities perpetrated against unwilling inmates is par for the course as rape, within the 28’s, is part of an entrenched initiation ceremony.

There remains no policy for warders to deal with rape in prison, and warders are forced to regard rape as consensual sex, which makes them complicit. According to website Section 27, Catalysts for Social Justice, the rate of HIV in our prisons well above the national average estimated to be between 19.8 to 40%. In addition to the devastating psychological impact, rape then can be a death sentence for the abused inmate, who may be targeted more brutally if he lays a charge.

It has to be acknowledged too, that there are few rehabilitation opportunities, and only the most promising prisoners get selected for these programmes. In addition, there are no adequate drug rehab programmes and access to drugs is easy, though not cheap. Men come out far more seriously drug addicted than when they entered the system.

With approximately seven thousand men languishing in Pollsmoor Prison, this is a time to remember everything we stand for. Human rights, nothing less. And to reflect on the fact that a human rights ethos remains an abstract concept in our prison system.

Sexual brutalization, a major human rights abuse, should never be made light of, and colourful language is best left for crime novels…

The full title of Heather Parker Lewis’s book is: God's Gangsters? the history, language, rituals, secrets and myths of South Africa's prison gangs (2nd revised edition 2010, published by ihilihili press)

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