Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison


I’m standing in a corridor with no windows. The walls, ceiling and floor are all made of the same heavy material, not to mention the psychedelic sloping and I have the impression that I’m in a large rabbit warren. The only way I’m getting out is forward or back. In front of me is a guard with a cartoon-like giant key. Behind me is Mr. Kula, Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons in the Western Cape.

Brushing my left elbow is a bright orange baggy cotton sleeve. It belongs to one of the many prisoners standing free next to me as they queue for yellow slop in their polystyrene cartons. To my right is the barred door through which I am about to enter a communal cell.

There are 14 thin metal bunk beds but it is immediately obvious that there are not 28 people in here. Men – though ‘young lads’ is probably a better description – sit everywhere; high, low, on window ledges, on beds, and on the floor. The Independent Prison Inspector (IPV) asks how many are in the cell. A low rumble comes back: ‘70’.

South African prisons are currently running at over 45% capacity. At least that’s the average, some are worse. Pollsmoor can cater for 1872 prisoners; at the start of 2008, there were 4526, of which 3923 were unsentenced.

Overcrowding is greatest in the unsentenced sections, largely because inmates cannot afford bail fees of around R300 (about $30), yet one prisoner costs the South African taxpayer R190 per day.

My eyes glide over the pictures of semi-naked white women until they rest on a purple box precariously balanced above the open-plan cordoned off section that contains the cell’s one toilet. It’s a makeshift bed. At least two adult men will sleep on it tonight.

I’m grateful that its winter and I’m wearing at least five layers. A burka would be more liberating right now.

Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison is commonly thought of as the roughest prison in the Western Cape. I will be told later that I am the only woman to have entered without holding the position of Prison Inspector.

Yet the inspector I’m with bounds about the building like an excited kid showing off his friends and teachers to his parents at school. There’s a friendly vibe and a feeling of community. It’s hard to believe that the prison is home to some of the worst sexual violence and most notorious gangs in South Africa.

The main three gangs are the 28s, the 27s and the 26s. Each gang serves a purpose in the vital network of survival.

The 26s are merchants, organising the trade of material items into and inside the prison, by means of theft, robbery and bribery.

The 27s are the soldiers, carrying out the disposal of wardens or inmates who ‘need to be taken care of’.

The 28s are by far the most dangerous, controlling the other gangs and trading the most powerful necessity in the prison: sex. Members of the 28 gang either go into the ‘blood line’ (or the red or gold line) or the ‘silver line’. Initiation into the blood line requires the taking of blood, initiation into the silver line requires becoming a leader’s wyfie and being raped.

A wyfie cleans and washes as well as performing sexual favours for the idolata (leader) and as such is the most degrading role. If an inmate refuses to be part of the gang, they will often be raped anyway or even killed. This loss of manhood causes great psychological distress, but membership into the gang provides protection ‘inside’.

The gang culture means that a criminal will enter the prison for a petty crime, but often end up committing a greater crime such as rape or murder inside the prison. This increases their sentence and when they do get out, they are often back within a year for a more serious crime, learned within the prison.

There is a call for more efficient repatriation and counselling work to limit the number of re-offenders, but with gross overcrowding, the safety and security of inmates is the priority.
Under these conditions, Bonnytoun House is a ray of hope.

‘Bonny’ calls itself a ‘place of safety’ for teenagers awaiting trial. There are currently 160 kids bounding around its halls or wrapped in a blanket on plastic chairs in front of the TV. With a ratio of seven children to one care worker, their future seems more hopeful. The centre provides counselling and repatriation as well as academic and practical education.

Although many of the boys come from communities with strong gang cultures, gangs and sexual violence are not so much of a problem as substance abuse. Dagga (cannabis) and Mandrax are common in the Western Cape, but now ‘tik’ (pronounced ‘tk’) users shadow Cape Town. Despite the fact that some of the boys are only 13 or 14, anti-drug training and counselling is a large part of what the hundred care workers and five social workers do at Bonnytoun House.

“Children cannot commit crime” says the Doli incapax rule of law. Yet children in Bonnytoun house have committed violent crimes such as robbery and murder.

Bonnytoun House believes that there are always societal or domestic causes of a child’s behaviour, crime included.

Counselling and family therapy can help to identify and understand the root causes of a child’s behaviour, so they can be addressed, in the hope of reducing re-offending rates and giving the child a second chance.

Head Social worker Elise Cassiem told the story of a 16 year old Muslim boy accused of house breaking. Mark* livied in the knowledge that his mother was dead after she abandoned him at just a few months old. However, when he was 14, relatives invited the family to his mother’s funeral in Johannesburg. The lies were so devastating to him that he ran away from home.

In and out of court, Mark first got in trouble when he stole a gun for an older man. When the gun was used Mark was framed for the crime, but spoke out, causing his father and grandfather to give up everything they had to move around the Eastern and Western Cape for his protection.
Mark came to Elise’s attention after he told stories of his father’s abuse and alcoholism, which were later revealed to be untrue. He was taken in by a kind friend and started attending church, but his crimes continued.

After counselling and family therapy Elise realised his crimes were merely the expression of a child’s feelings of betrayal and anger. The next day Mark’s teacher was amazed by his changed behaviour. Now Mark is awaiting trial at home with his father and grandfather.

Township sports clubs such as boxing and rope skipping are other initiatives that aim to get kids off the streets and away from street gangs and drugs.

Nine-year old Mkhululi Gosa, a World Rope Skipping champion from Cape Flats’ township Khayelitsha found the gymnastic sport when he was seven years old.

“I followed a group of skippers to the local gym and when I saw what they were doing, I thought, ‘I’ve got to stop loitering around this township and do this!’” he smiles.

He is just one success story in millions of unheard voices, but street and prison gangs continue to grow in number and violence.

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