by Lubabalo Ngcukana, Thanduxolo Jika and Theo Jeptha
July 30 — THE full horror of the country's most overcrowded prison can be revealed in this shocking photograph showing what warders say are 300 men crammed into a cell built for only 15. Inside Mthatha Medium Prison, which is more than 400 percent overcrowded, inmates are so squashed they are forced to sleep sitting up.
The unbearable conditions are a potential spark for breakouts at a facility where there is only one warder to more than 200 inmates.
Already the prison, formerly known as Wellington, has encountered two serious escapes, which infuriated Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour.
Conditions are so bad that:
Pictures taken by the Daily Dispatch at 9.30pm show warders squeezing even more men into one jam-packed cell.
There is no bedding for inmates, most of whom are awaiting-trial prisoners not yet convicted of any crime, who are forced to stand, sit or lie on top of each other.
During the paper's snap visit armed with hidden cameras, prisoners pleaded with reporters to ease their plight.
"Hey people, can you help us, it is hot in here and we do not even have beds to sleep," begged one prisoner. "This place is too overcrowded, we are going to die in here, can you please do something."
Rape is commonplace they claim, and so too is disease. Inmates complained they were being "eaten alive" by lice.
At the moment the prison accommodates 2491 inmates, four times more than the 580 it was built for. Of those in jail, 1598 are awaiting trial.
"In a normal situation there should be not more than 15 prisoners in that cell, but now more than 300 are squashed in there," said one warder.
And during either of the two shifts, no more than 10 warders are on duty to control the population.
Dispatch reporters spotted young faces among the adults, with one estimated to be only 14 years old.
One warder said the chances of an inmate contracting HIV was more than 90 percent.
"If you are locked up there for even one day, chances are very high you will come out a rape victim. Almost every day there are rape cases reported. But of course some of the prisoners do not come forward to report their cases, because they are afraid of being victimised again."
Last week both the Department of Correctional Services and Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons (JIP), who visited in January, confirmed the overcrowding.
JIP acting director of functional services Pritima Osman said the approved lock-up total should be 580 inmates.
"This means the centre was 429 percent overcrowded.
"Unsentenced or awaiting-trial inmates are by far the largest number of inmates at the centre."
She said most awaiting-trial prisoners were in jail because they couldn't afford bail and cases were frequently postponed as prisoners struggled to find lawyers.
In January the country's correctional service system was accommodating 165987 inmates, 45 percent more than the 114559 it was designed to take.
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's criminal justice programme manager Amanda Dissel said such conditions put people in situations where they used violence to survive and hide their own emotions.
"People are forced to buy their way around to get things such as blankets and food. Some even trade sex, which is counter to good behaviour," said Dissel
Eastern Cape Police and Prison Civil Rights Union (Popcru) secretary Tshaka Mdiya agreed that overcrowding was hampering correctional services' rehabilitation programmes.
"You end up with a situation of inmates kept in cells and staff manning gates instead of assisting inmates with rehabilitation and skills," said Mdiya.
Originally published in the Daily Dispatch Online