British law firm acts for Bloem prisoners

Forty-three inmates who allege they were tortured by warders in a Bloemfontein prison are preparing to bring their claim before the British High Court.

British law firm Leigh Day is representing the prisoners and served an urgent “letter of claim” to security giant G4S’s headquarters in Crawley in the UK on Thursday.

G4S won a R15 billion, 25-year contract in 2000 to build, run and manage the Mangaung Correctional Centre (MCC).

“The instructions we have received from our clients attest to a culture of abuse and fear that appears to have been endemic in MCC for years,” Leigh Day’s letter to G4S reads.

“Many allegations involve inmates being taken to solitary cells where there are no cameras, stripped naked and forced on to a metal bed, with water thrown on them, before being repeatedly shocked with electric shields, including to the head and genitals. These incidents are alleged to have been accompanied by brutal assaults, verbal abuse and in some cases serious racial abuse.”

The firm is also acting for the mother of a former inmate who died in custody.

In October 2013, the Wits Justice Project revealed that the Emergency Security Team – warders armed with electric shields and batons who are called to emergency situations – allegedly assaulted inmates routinely.

Inmates, warders and other sources have claimed that the security team would kick, punch and electroshock inmates with their shields, after first dousing them with water. Leaked video footage shot inside the prison also revealed that an inmate – who had no record of mental illness – was forcibly injected, seemingly with antipsychotic drugs.

Twelve of Leigh Day’s clients claim they were forcibly injected.

Violence at the Mangaung prison was exacerbated by G4S’s dismissal of about 330 warders in September 2013 following a prolonged strike. The situation spiralled out of control and the department of correctional services stepped in and took control of the prison.

In August, G4S was handed back control of the jail. A government investigation into the alleged abuse has been finalised but not yet released.

In November last year South African attorney Egon Oswald, who is collaborating with the British lawyers, was denied access to the Mangaung prison by correctional services.

Oswald has clients in the prison who allege they were abused while in the care of G4S, but he says a department official told him he couldn’t consult with his clients because they hadn’t applied to see him.

If the claim is successful, it will be a landmark case for prisoners incarcerated with the biggest security provider in the world.

G4S runs eight prisons and several immigration and juvenile detention centres. Its annual revenues are worth £7.4 billion (R132 billion).

With 618 000 employees in 120 countries, it is the largest employer quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

Leigh Day has given the security giant three months in which to provide a response. If G4S – which has to date categorically denied allegations of electroshocking and forced medication – declines to settle, the case is expected to go to the High Court in London later this year.

A G4S spokesperson said the company “insists on the highest standards of care and we do not tolerate the mistreatment of prisoners”.

“When these allegations arose in 2013, the department of correctional services investigated the claims and returned the operation of the facility to us on August 1, 2014, having not presented any evidence to substantiate the accusations.”

Leigh Day attorney Tessa Gregory said: “Our clients allege they were subjected to unspeakable acts of brutality while they were entrusted to the safe custody of G4S.

“This is not the first time that G4S and its subsidiaries, operating across the globe, have faced accusations of human rights abuses. It is important that companies, even those as large as G4S, understand that there will be consequences if they do not respect the human rights of those they are paid to provide security to,” Gregory said.

First published in City Press & The Guardian. Read the original article

Ruth Hopkins

Ruth is an award-winning investigative reporter who writes about human rights and criminal justice issues. Her latest book, Misery Merchants, Life and Death in a Private South African Prison was published in February 2020. Learn more about Ruth.