South Africa's Prison Conditions: The inmates talk.

South Africa's Prison Conditions: The inmates talk.

Dissel, A. (1996). South Africa's Prison Conditions: The inmates talk. In Imbizo, No. 2.


Amanda Dissel

In Imbizo, No. 2, pp. 4-10, 1996.

Amanda Dissel is Manager of the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


Over the past couple of years the Department of Correctional Services has relaxed its policy on allowing visitors into prisons. In the past months the Department and various prisons have been at the centre of some very critical media coverage. The Department was initially reluctant to allow me into the prisons to interview prisoners; but my purpose was to establish what prisoners actually experience in prison and to make the public aware of what happens to those offenders whom society condemns to prison. The courts and the public are demanding harsher treatment of criminals, longer terms of imprisonment, and are unwilling to invest in improved conditions for prisoners.

However, society expects that through the experience of imprisonment, prisoners will be punished and also rehabilitated so that they do not re-engage in crime when they are released.

I visited Leeuwkop Maximum Prison and Modderbee Prison in May 1996 to talk to prisoners about their experiences in prison. My overriding impression of these prisons is that they are large warehouses where people are stored until their sentences have expired. Most prisoners, especially those in the maximum sections, have nothing to do all day, and this state of inactivity continues for the period that they are in prison. They are certainly punished, they are degraded and denuded of every aspect of their responsibility, but there is very little in the way of rehabilitation.

Nevertheless the conditions of prisoners have improved in the past few years in many respects. Disciplinary procedures have become more humane, contact with families and the community have improved, and a concerted effort is being made to introduce training, education and work opportunities into some of the prisons. The Department is, however, crippled by lack of funds and severe staff shortages. South Africa, at 1 warden to every 5,5 prisoners, has a far lower staff to prisoner ratio than that which exists in the "developed" world.

The Prisons

Leeuwkop was built about 30 years ago, and is situated on a tranquil farm in what is now becoming a wealthy suburban area north of Johannesburg, in Gauteng. It has four different prisons catering for sentenced prisoners totalling approximately 3,000: a juvenile prison, two medium prisons for medium security prisoners, and one maximum security prison for adult prisoners. The maximum section has capacity for 784 prisoners, and at the time of my visit, was accommodating just 749 men. The maximum section is situated some distance from the other prisons, and is an entirely separate building. The prison is built on two levels and is divided into several sections, each with its own courtyard. Elevated catwalks run along the length of the prison.

Modderbee is also an older prison, built in 1968, and is situated north of Benoni, Gauteng. It consists of three-storied buildings situated along three sides of a quadrangle. The kitchen and single cells occupy the fourth side. The quadrangle is divided down its length by wire fencing, and along its breadth by the dining hall. Modderbee has capacity for 2,757 prisoners, and at the time of my visit was accommodating 3,301 prisoners. All the prisoners, except those in the single cells, are accommodated in the communal cells in the same buildings, but are kept in separate sections within the prison. The sections cater for awaiting trial prisoners; those on further charges; the medium category of prisoners who perform labour outside; a school section; hospital section; juvenile section; and a section holding those serving maximum sentences (the "raadafdeling"). There is also a "rehabilitation" section.

Modderbee is a frightening place. The passages are long and dark, the buildings dark and foreboding. There are so many prisoners and so few prison officers. Although there are over 600 staff members at the prison command, only about 200 of them work in the prison itself. In 1994, Modderbee was the scene of perhaps the worst riots during that period, and also perhaps that this country has seen in recent years. When the riots erupted on 9 June 1994, the prisoners took over virtually the whole complex, and the staff were unable to control the situation. Because of the large sections, the movement of prisoners is difficult to control. During the visit, I had the impression that it is the prisoners who are controlling the prison, with the warders merely co-operating.

The commander of the prison, Mr de Villiers, is anticipating that the upgrading of the prison and further sectioning of the facilities to enable better control, will occur next year.

Prison Conditions

In Leeuwkop most prisoners stay in the communal cells. The communal cells were fairly large and clean with high ceilings. The cells open on to small courtyards where the prisoners are able to spend most of their day. Prisoners complained that there was no privacy and they were required to use the toilet in the same place and sometimes at the same times as prisoners who were eating or cooking. Not only is it unhygienic, but it is humiliating, they said.

The cells in Modderbee varied. In the "raadafdeling", the cells were cramped but were kept fairly clean. Prisoners sleep on bunk beds, about 35 to a cell. The walls were dirty and had not been painted for several years. The corridors and staircases were filthy and looked as though they hadn't been swept or washed for several days.

The prison is filthy, the ablution facilities are filthy. The showers get blocked and take time to fix. We spent a week with the toilet blocked. We had a leaking tap for ages and only after many complaints was it fixed. We don't have polish or soap to clean with. The problem is that you get prisoners who are cleaners for the sections and there are warders who are supposed to supervise them. Every day they open the cells for the cleaners to clean, but at the end of the day the place is not clean. (James: Modderbee).

In the awaiting trial section, prisoners sleep on double mattresses, two to a mattress on the floor. Between 30 and 42 people are held in the cell. Only one toilet and shower are available for these prisoners, which are separated from the main part of the cell by a wall. Personal hygiene has been raised as a problem.

They give us five rolls of toilet paper every two weeks which must be used by all of the 42 prisoners in our cell. (Pieter: Modderbee).

The prison is overcrowded. I feel horrible. In the morning, the people in our cell start to wash from 4am to 6am, and then in the evening from 3pm to 7pm. There is only one toilet and one bathroom and you have to shower with someone else. However, if you are older, like myself, our cell's rules allow you to shower alone. (Ronald: Modderbee).

Several prisoners in the awaiting trial section complained that their blankets were dirty and were full of lice. Prisoners have to wash their blankets themselves and they have to hang the blankets out of their cell windows for them to dry. One bar of soap is given to prisoners every two weeks which is to serve for both personal use and for the washing of clothes. Awaiting trial prisoners wash their own clothes in their cells. Prisoners in the sentenced section have their blankets washed every month.

Conditions in the hospital section were much improved, although most of the beds were unoccupied. Members of the Modderbee Recreation Committee have established a cell on the top floor of the hospital section which they had painted and decorated. Only about 13 prisoners were accommodated in this cell, and they had cooking facilities for preparing their own food. The cells accommodating prisoners who are teachers in the school section were also of a slightly better standard.

Awaiting Trial Prisoners

Towards the end of May 1996, the numbers of awaiting trial prisoners in South African prisons had risen to 30,000, which meant facilities were 200% beyond capacity. In Modderbee there were 650 awaiting trial prisoners in accommodation intended for 348, a rate of 192% overcrowding. But the figures for overcrowding do not give an accurate picture of the true horror of the situation. The cells are cold and damp. There is little space, perhaps a foot, between the mattresses arranged on the floor. The toilets are dirty, the tiles chipped and broken, the walls unpainted or dirty. The air in the cell was stale and filled with cigarette smoke.

According to the prison authorities, awaiting trial prisoners were allowed out of their cells for exercise every second day. However, two awaiting trial prisoners said they had rarely, if ever, been allowed out for exercise. They were released from their cells to collect their food in the morning and again in the afternoon. The rest of the day was spent in their cells. The only activities available to the awaiting trialists were cards and board games which they had procured or made themselves. They also complained that although television was available to prisoners this had to be hired by the cell at a cost of R5.00 a day, and most inmates of the cell were unable to afford this sum.

The slow process of the courts and the backlog of many cases frequently results in prisoners being held awaiting trial for many months, sometimes six months to a year. Theoretically, their conditions should be better than sentenced prisoners, as they have not yet been convicted of any offence. Despite having access to a greater number of visits and being allowed to wear their own clothing, conditions for awaiting trial prisoners are grim.

In Modderbee no schooling, training, or recreation facilities were available. Awaiting trial prisoners are not obliged to work in prison, and none that I spoke to were working. Their day consists of an endless routine of idleness. During my visit many of the prisoners lay in bed, while others sat around in groups on the floor chatting or smoking. Prisoners complained that although they had "phone cards", they could not use these to contact their families as the telephone in the prison had been out of order for several months.

Maximum Security Prisoners

The maximum security prisoners are those who have committed serious offences and who still have long periods of their sentences to serve. Some prisoners in these sections are serving multiple sentences of perhaps twenty years while others are serving shorter sentences for fraud. Those who have committed violent offences are accommodated together with others who have committed economic offences.

In these sections, the overwhelming impression is that these prisoners have nothing to do all day, or for the duration of their imprisonment in the maximum section. They are too high a security risk to be allowed out of the prison to work in the grounds or to learn a trade in the workshops. In Leeuwkop, there were "spans" (teams) working in the prison gardens.

Approximately 200 prisoners were registered in the school and some of the prisoners acted as teachers. Literacy training was also available. They are also able to play soccer at least four times a week and there is an organised recreation committee which arranges matches between the different teams. There is also a gym which has facilities for weight training and basketball, and a prison choir. But for the majority of prisoners, there is nothing to do.

In Modderbee, maximum security prisoners could not even attend the prison school since this entails them being moved to the relatively low security school section. Here, the only perceivable difference in security between this and the medium security section is that these prisoners were not allowed to work. Prisoners have to be evaluated and transferred to the medium sections before they can participate in vocational training. This represents an enormous loss of human potential. A prisoner's comment:

There is a man who is serving a sentence of twenty five years. He has been doing nothing in prison all these years. What does he know about the world, or about the changes on the outside? Now, they are transferring him to the medium section where he will learn a trade. How can he learn now, he is an old man? (Thembi: Leeuwkop).

I don't do anything. We don't have work here, there is no trade. We must learn something here so that when we leave we don't go back to car hijacking. When I get out of prison I won't be able to do anything. I just sit or walk around all day. I get sick because I don't do anything. (Abednigo: Leeuwkop).

At the moment I am just sitting doing nothing. I applied for work in the prison, but the Board1 told me that I can't work because I am serving a long sentence. (Colbett: Modderbee).

Not all prisoners were unemployed. One prisoner was occupied during the day cleaning the shoes of the warders or of other prisoners. Another, who worked in the hospital section, complained:

The harder you work in this place, the less you get for it. I get paid R7.00 a month for my work. The good you do doesn't give you any feedback. (Prisoner: Leeuwkop).

Many prisoners are frustrated that they receive no training in prison which will help them stay away from crime when they get out. They also complained that although the name of the prison service had changed to "correctional services" and its aim was rehabilitation, there was no rehabilitation at all.

I don't want to come out (of prison) and find that there is no job for me. I don't want to commit crime. But there is no-one to help me. There is no-one to lead us. (Thembi: Leeuwkop).

The authorities are not in support of rehabilitation. We have asked for a school section and they don't give us one. They are not interested in rehabilitating us. If you want to rehabilitate, it depends on your own willpower. (Amros: Leeuwkop).

The people have been here so long that you can't change their minds, or advance them. The authorities have to start rehabilitating prisoners sooner. After four or five years a man loses contact with society and himself. (Prisoner: Leeuwkop).

Leeuwkop has two social workers and one psychologist, as well as two teachers. Modderbee, with four times as many prisoners, has only two social workers and one professional teacher. Prisoners expressed frustration that they didn't see the social workers enough or that they were unhelpful and unable to assist them with their problems.

For the maximum prisoners in Modderbee, the only form of "rehabilitation" is the soccer which they play. Prisoners in this section are free to move around during the day, and they organise soccer matches in the courtyard. Cells are even arranged according to soccer clubs. A cell in this section has been converted into a gym with limited weight training equipment.

There is no rehabilitation. People are locked up with nothing to do. You go to the kitchen and you come to your cell. There is nothing you gain, nothing to talk about. The recreation facilities are poor. I am a member of the recreation committee, but there are no funds for recreation. (James: Modderbee).

One prisoner spoke positively of rehabilitation, but indicated that it had to come from himself. He felt that a few of the authorities were interested in helping him rehabilitate.

I was a bad person. But today I have changed. The warders came to me one day and said if I changed, I could be a better person in the future because the future lies in my hands. I have taken their words. Now I have changed. They gave me support when I needed support. (Rodney: Leeuwkop).

Another spoke of the opportunity that he had obtained to continue with his school studies in prison. Outside of prison he was involved in too many distracting activities but prison provided him with all the time to study.

However, most prisoners were concerned that instead of rehabilitation they learned nothing, or worse, learned how to improve their criminal skills. The prisoners have nothing to talk about except crime.

I have learned that I must not commit another crime or I will come back here. But the problem is that you meet people here and sometimes you envy their crimes, because they made more money than you. It's a matter of choice. But there is no-one who helps you make that choice. (Thebogo: Modderbee).

I have learned nothing in prison: only how to kill people; how to stop an alarm; how to steal a car – nothing I can teach a person. Most prisoners talk about how to commit another crime. (Abednigo: Leeuwkop).

Most prisoners were adamant they did not want to come back to prison and had visions of working once they had been released. Many of them expressed concern that they had no trade, or that it would be difficult for them to start up a business on their own. Many feared the implications of looking for employment with a criminal record.

Most prisoners spoke about how their family relationship had been destroyed through their imprisonment. One man had not seen his child since it was born five years ago. Another was anticipating having to start building a family all over again when he came out. The families of prisoners find it difficult to visit regularly, as many of them live some distance from the prison. The prison rules and procedures making visiting tiresome for visitors:

My people have refused to come and see me. They can only come on the weekend. They have to park by the gates and catch a bus. By the time it gets here three quarters of an hour has gone. Then they wait another fifteen minutes to see me, forty five minutes for the visit, and then another forty five minutes to leave the prison again. I haven't had a visit for a couple of weeks. My visitors find it demeaning. (Prisoner: Leeuwkop).

The number of visits which a prisoner may receive depends on his privilege category. It takes perhaps two years to be classified in the A category, the privileged group. Only the A category prisoners are entitled to contact visits. They are allowed 48 visits per year. An incoming prisoner is entitled to 20 non-contact visits a year. This makes it almost impossible for prisoners to maintain their family relationship when they enter prison.


Gangsterism is prevalent in South African prisons and has been for decades. Certain prison gangs, which organise themselves around specific themes, exist nation-wide. The "number" gangs, the 26's, 27's and 28's, organise themselves around theft and robbery, blood and the system of "catamites" or coerced sexual partners or "wives" respectively. The Airforce gang organises around escaping from prison, while the Big Fives collaborate with the authorities as informers. Gangs, and the threat posed by gang members, are feared by many of the prisoners interviewed.

Those not belonging to any gang lived in constant fear of attach by gang members. Most prisoners did not feel that the prison authorities could protect them against gang activities or violence. If a prisoner is robbed of his possessions by a gang member, it is almost impossible for the warders to help him get them back. Gang violence also occurs behind the authorities' backs. Some prisoners accuse the warders of being afraid of the gangs. Others allege that warders collude with the gangs and make use of them to further their own aims.

An old and experienced inmate told me that he had been a member of the Airforce gang, and had escaped and attempted to escape many times. He was now no longer interested in being a gang member, but could not discontinue his membership for fear of being killed.

At Leeuwkop, the prisoners criticised the authorities for being too lenient with gang members who had been involved in violence. They felt that the warders should beat up gangsters to teach them a lesson and to show others why they should not join gangs. Instead they were quietly removed from the main sections and put into the isolation cells where they could be charged and deprived of some of their privileges for a certain period of time. Especially in the maximum sections, where prisoners were serving sentences for multiple offences including murder, this was not seen as a threat or a punishment. Many of the prisoners have nothing to lose if they commit violent acts in prison.

There has been no gang violence at this prison since January 1996, and some prisoners ascribe this fact to the increase in the amount of time for recreation and sport. In the opinion of one prisoner, prisoners have less interest in being violent if they are kept busy.

Many young prisoners are forced to join gangs as a form of protection in prison. One of the most pernicious aspects of gang organisation is the system of coerced sexual partners and sodomy. Older or stronger gang members force or bribe younger prisoners to perform sexual favours. Prisoners also spoke of the authorities being bribed to assist in the procurement of young prisoners for the older inmates. In the adult awaiting trial section at Modderbee, I was informed that juveniles were allowed into the adult cell to stay with older men. I was also told of juveniles being smuggled into the adult sections. In one awaiting trial cell, there were apparently 7 juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18. Both juveniles and warders were being paid for their services.

I wondered how the authorities would be able to contain gang activities, especially at a prison like Modderbee. In the "raadafdeling", there were over 800 prisoners, and according to the prisoners, only about 12 to 14 warders for the section. The sections are large and there are many corners and corridors which warders cannot reach, and during the time of my visit were not patrolling.

Prisoners in this section had taken it upon themselves to organise themselves against gangsterism. The Modderbee Disciplinary Committee (MDC) was formed in February 1996, and so they were confident that they had been successful in reducing gangsterism. Every day, the MDC would deal with complaints against gangsterism or other unacceptable behaviour. A committee would deal with the complaints, and if serious, would apparently refer them to the authorities to deal with according to the regulations. Most prisoners believed that the violence had been reduced, and certainly the atmosphere seemed calm. One prisoner doubted whether the absence of violent activity would last.

The smell of dagga pervaded the whole of Modderbee Prison, even in the Rehabilitation Section (where prisoners with alcohol and drug problems are accommodated). Prisoners informed me that dagga was readily available, often brought in by the warders. Younger prisoners were often involved in selling their bodies to pay for dagga and other goods which could be bought in the prison. I was also advised that prisoners brewed a strong "Mqomboti" beer with mealie meal and bread smuggled from the kitchens.

Prisoners complained that there was only one "tuck shop" in the prison, and that this was in a section which was not always available to them. As a result, enterprising prisoners had set up hawker's stores where they sold, at a profit, goods bought from the tuck shop, as well as some items, such as fat, which could only have originated in the kitchen.


Perhaps the most frustrating thing about prison for prisoners is being idle and not being able to make decisions for themselves. Many prisoners wanted to work, or wanted to study, but had been denied permission. They cannot take decisions about how they would spend the day. They are dependent on the rules of the prison (which most prisoners complained were not explained to them), or on the rules determined by gangs and other prisoner groupings. But more importantly, they are not encouraged to take responsibility for themselves in prison, and for what they will do once they are released. It is largely left to the prisoner himself to ensure, against many odds, that he learns something positive from his prison experience.

Prison conditions need to be drastically improved, and this is obviously difficult with limited resources. But perhaps more importantly, there needs to be more positive intervention with prisoners during their imprisonment from the Department of Correctional Services and from community organisations. More development programmes need to be made available to all prisoners. It is pointless only beginning to engage prisoners in programmes or training just prior to their release. This needs to occur as soon as they enter the prison. Imprisonment needs to become more than a secure place in which to keep offenders away from society. Most prisoners are released back into society after serving their sentences, and even though they are in prison, they remain members of that society. If the community continues to send prisoners to jail, then it has also to take responsibility for the prisoner and the prison.

They have to ensure that the prisoner is prepared for his release from prison. To this extent, the community must ensure that a greater part of the prison regime is geared towards preparing the prisoner for reintegration into the community. A large component of this preparation involves training and education. It also involves encouraging the prisoner to take responsibility for himself, by planning for his future and taking steps to achieve his aims. It is not enough to merely focus on redressing the offences of the past by locking people in prison. The system has to look towards the future and try to do something with the people who come under its purview.


1 The prisoner is referring to the Institutional Committee which makes decisions regarding a prisoners programme in prison.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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