Torture in South African prisons

Jul 22, 11 Torture in South African prisons

Gautengers woke on Tuesday morning to the prolonged screaming of a prisoner allegedly being tortured in Pretoria central prison.

Talk Radio 702 aired, on the John Robbie morning show, a recording allegedly smuggled out of the prison – of a remand detainee or ATD (awaiting trial detainee, or, as Judge Johann Kriegler prefers to say, “an unsentenced detainee”) having an electrified shield being shoved into his body as part of an “interrogation” by a task team of warders.

The detainee – who is still innocent since he has not yet been sentenced – was suspected of having a cell-phone with him. As a result, Correctional Services and the SAPS are investigating allegations of torture against six prison warders.

The issue of whether torture exists in SA prisons, how prevalent it is, and what the authorities are doing about it has thus been pushed – at least for maybe two days – into centre stage again.

Allegations were also made that the same may have happened to some other remand detainees previously, said Correctional Services in a statement released on Wednesday.

It is noteworthy, however, that the government has not yet criminalized torture, despite this being one of the obligations of having ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UN CAT) in 1998.

Vincent Moaga of the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) has called for adequate torture legislation to be implemented in line with the UN CAT.

“There have been numerous reports of assaults and unnatural deaths in policing and custodial settings in the recent past,” said Clare Ballard of the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative (CSPRI) on Tuesday. But, for many of these cases, “the alleged perpetrators have been neither investigated nor prosecuted.”

One man alleged that he was beaten up so badly by officials at a Free State prison that he is wheelchair-bound and can no longer tie his own shoelaces, according to a letter he sent to the Wits Justice Project (WJP) earlier this year.

The officials allegedly broke his feet and back when he tried to escape from prison. When he attempted to open a case against the officials, he was ignored and threatened instead, he claimed. The man was not given treatment until two days after the attack because, officials told him, he “must first feel the pain”, he claimed in the letter.

“Inmates are often subjected to assault – both from inmates and from officials,” said Mohlolo Kgopane, director of the Former Convicted Offenders Development Initiative. “These attacks are sometimes reported and sometimes suppressed.”

Between 2009 and 2010, 11 inmate deaths resulted from assault by prison officials, according to the latest report by Inspecting Judge of Prisons, Judge Deon van Zyl. Batons, teargas, assault, electric shields or booted feet were cited as the instruments of assault.

In the same year, the Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons (JIOP) received 4 929 complaints of inhumane treatment on inmates and 2 159 complaints of assault on inmates – all by prison officials. Van Zyl’s report said that there was “recalcitrance on the part of authorities to take decisive action against correctional officials involved in such cases”.

In 2009, the South Gauteng High Court convicted three correctional officials of the murder of three inmates in the Krugersdorp Correctional Centre. The officials were each sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.

One prisoner in Johannesburg’s ‘Sun City’ Prison told the Wits Justice Project that inmates are often allegedly beaten up with batons when they are not co-operative.

Earlier this year, another leak from prison to the media caused an outcry around the treatment of prisoners. In April, the Mail and Guardian Online posted CCTV footage of a prisoners’ protest at Kimberley Prison, showing officials beating a prisoner with batons. Another clip from the same incident shows another bleeding prisoner being dragged to a corner and ignored by officials.

Incidents of torture and abuse are often ignored in cases in which the perpetrators have friends in high places in the prison, said Kgopane. “Because incidents happen behind closed doors, the public and the long arm of the law are not privy to them,” he said.

“When prisoners were protesting for the vote in the mid nineties, stun guns, stun belts and stun batons were introduced into the prisons. These gadgets have been used periodically to ‘play’ with inmates,” said Golden Miles Bhudu of the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights.

The use of the electric riot shield in non-riot settings was raised as a concern in the Jali Commission Report in 2006, said Ballard.

Incidents of torture are not confined to prisons alone.

The Wits Law Clinic receives on average one case of alleged torture a month, where police are the perpetrators. “Often police competence is low, and torture is perceived to be a more efficient method of finding what one is looking for,” said Professor Peter Jordi of the Wits Law Clinic.

Jordi has dealt with numerous cases where police used either electrocution, or smothered suspects with plastic bags, rubber or condoms, in efforts to extract information from them.

In one case, police at the Midrand Police Station allegedly detained a Nigerian man and electrocuted him at regular intervals to obtain information about the whereabouts of a laptop. Charges of robbery against him were withdrawn, and the case of assault against the officers is still pending in court.

While it seems that there is a rise in cases of torture in detention settings, Jordi believes that police are not “reverting to torture” but that “it’s always been there.”

But “relying on the police to investigate the police is a hopeless pursuit,” said Jordi, who seeks civil relief for victims, rather than taking a criminal law approach to these cases.

While Correctional Services states it does not condone torture, it does approve the regulated use of a variety of security equipment within prisons, including “batons, hand cuffs, leg irons, teargas, pepper spray, electric shields and stun belts,” said Wednesday’s statement.

Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula visited the man in prison on Wednesday, after which she said that “he is well and confirms that he is not suffering any form of pain nor injury.”

Vincent Moaga of the South African Human Rights Commission’s has called for a thorough investigation into allegations of torture and has urged for appropriate action to be taken against those who are found to be involved.

While is has been reported that six warders are being investigated in connection with this case of torture, Bhudu believes that nothing will come of the case as “guards guard themselves”.

Meanwhile, Adam Carelse, director of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, the statutory watchdog body on the treatment of prisoners, refused to comment on the matter.

“The organizations who are supposed to stand up for prisoner rights are not doing so,” said Bhudu.

“Torture is one of the most serious violations of human freedom and dignity, and there can be no justification for it,” said Ballard.

* Arnott, Cloete and Gordin are members of the Wits Justice Project (WJP), which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice.

Image by Chrissy Olsen

This article originally appeared in Politicsweb on the 21st of July 2011.