Mangaung prison inmate ‘tortured to death’

On a cold winter day in 2005, inmate Isaac Nelani asked wardens at Mangaung prison, run by British security firm G4S, for an extra blanket to keep him warm. The prison walls emitted a chill that crept into his joints and bones. Nelani, a 47-year old inmate at Mangaung prison, was HIV-positive, which made him more susceptible to the cold.

On a cold winter day in 2005, inmate Isaac Nelani asked wardens at Mangaung prison, run by British security firm G4S, for an extra blanket to keep him warm. The prison walls emitted a chill that crept into his joints and bones. Nelani, a 47-year old inmate at Mangaung prison, was HIV-positive, which made him more susceptible to the cold.

Other than his insistence on an extra blanket that day, not much else is known about Nelani. Inmates who spoke to the Wits Justice Project (WJP), say he was a gentle guy, others claim he was emotionally unstable. Why he had been placed in a cell in Mangaung’s notorious “Broadway” isolation section remains unknown. Nelani himself is no longer around to connect the dots, because he died under suspicious circumstances on that cold day, May 18 2005. G4S officials registered the death as suicide in their internal records, which the WJP has in its possession.
Several inmates incarcerated in Mangaung prison have died under suspicious circumstances. Documents that were recently provided to the WJP and eyewitness accounts contain shocking allegations that inmates were tortured before they died, while the prison registered their deaths as either “natural” or “suicide”. More worryingly, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) is aware that G4S’ recordkeeping of deaths in custody is not up to standard and that  deaths through torture may go undetected. Despite that knowledge, it has not held G4S accountable. DCS has instituted a task team to look into unnatural deaths in the prison, but the investigations have yet to be finalised.

Recently, Nelani’s death was part of a DCS investigation into allegations of abuse at the Bloemfontein prison. The investigation was initiated two years ago, after the WJP revealed the results of a year-long probe into the prison. It uncovered a practice, since the inception of the prison in 2000, of alleged routine assaults, electroshocking, alleged forced injections with anti-psychotic drugs and lengthy isolation of inmates in the prison. The allegations were based on interviews with approximately 70 inmates and dozens of wardens, governmental reports and audio and video footage of the forced injections and the electroshocking. It revealed a hellhole of a prison.

Then minister of correctional services, Sbu Ndebele, promised to “leave no stone unturned”. The 30 days he allocated for the report to be finalised have long expired; nearly two years after the expose, DCS has still not finalised or published the results of its investigation.

The DCS took over Mangaung prison in October 2013, when G4S lost control of the prison, amid a spate of stabbings and hostage-takings, which followed on the heels of a protracted strike and subsequent dismissal of 330 employees: about two-thirds of the entire work force. A year ago, the department handed back the prison to G4S.

The WJP has seen the part of the draft DCS report that refers to Nelani’s death. “In respect of death (sic.) of Isaac Nelani, a discrepancy exists between MCC [Mangaung Correctional Centre – ed.] and pathologist records, MCC records the death as a suicide, whilst pathologist records it as a head wound.” DCS, however, denies such a report existed. “DCS is not aware of any reference to a head wound with regard to Isaac Nelani.”

In 2010, a magistrate’s inquest into Isaac Nelani’s death revealed further worrying findings. It starts with the witness statements of the warders on duty that day. Sello Johannes Moleleke, the supervisor, stated that on May 18 2005 around 5pm, he checked up on all inmates in Broadway, by looking through the feeding hole. When he came to Nelani’s cell door, he saw that he was sitting next to the door “with a piece of clothing around his neck”. Moleleke’s colleague Vuyo David then called the prison hospital and two nurses were dispatched. When they arrived at the scene, they tried to resuscitate Nelani, but to no avail. He was pronounced dead.

And this is where the plot thickens. South African Police (SAPS) arrived at the scene and they took pictures of Nelani’s corpse, his cell and of the unit Broadway. Then the body was transferred to the morgue. The next day, pathologist Robert Gene Brook performed an autopsy on Nelani, as is required by law if a death is considered unnatural.

Brook qualifies the manner of death as “undetermined, but suspicious”. He does not mention a head wound, but does determine the inmate’s cause of death was “consistent with either hanging by the neck or strangulation”. What raised the pathologist’s suspicion was the bruising on Nelani’s heart. Bruising of the heart happens when there is huge impact, like a severe assault, a car accident, a fall to the ground from a great height, or when cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) takes place. A nurse did perform CPR on Nelani, but the location of the bruising on the heart apparently suggests it was not caused by the resuscitation attempt. “(..) the distribution of the said bruising (…) only on the posterior of the heart, adjacent the spine, lead me to suspect that blunt force had been applied to the heart”.

In concluding the report, Brooks writes that none of the pieces of clothing that Nelani allegedly hanged himself by, were presented to him. The police had told him the inmate had hanged himself by a leather jacket, which he found to be completely inconsistent with the ligature marks on Nelani’s neck, with a piece of clothing that is not permitted in prison. “In civilized countries throughout the world, the Forensic Pathologist is called to scenes of death in custody; it never happens here in Bloemfontein. Never.” Brooks writes.

So what did happen on May 18 2005 in Broadway? Four eyewitnesses told the WJP a chilling tale of a cover up.

Inmate Papi Maruping was locked up in a cell on the upper level of Broadway, facing the cell where the warders brought Nelani, a cell commonly referred to as the “dark room”. He and two other inmates say that the flap on the feeding hatches in the cell door was kept open, so they could see out through a slit. “Nelani was complaining about the cold and had demanded an extra blanket. He was given one, but when Maluleke came on duty, he took it from him. Nelani protested loudly and Maluleke called the EST (Emergency Security Team, also known as the Ninjas).” According to Maruping, six EST members, armed with electrically charged shields, came to the unit around one o’clock in the afternoon. “They took him out of his cell and twisted his arms behind his back. Nelani complained and asked them: ‘is this how you operate?’. They ordered him to strip and to take a cold shower, then he had to get dressed again and then they took him to the dark room.”

The dark room was a windowless cell with thick walls that ensured it was a sound proof space. This is where an EST member, interviewed by BBC television on October 28 2013, admitted to bringing inmates to torture them. “Yeah we stripped them naked and we throw with water so the electricity can work nicely. I will shock him until he tells the truth that I want even if it’s a lie,” the Ninja said before camera. Around the same time, a further 13 dismissed EST members confirmed to the WJP that the dark room was used for this purpose.

“When they tried to take him to the dark room, he resisted. The EST guys surrounded him outside the cell, cuffed him and started to shock him with their shields. They kicked him too. Nelani was bleeding from the mouth and screaming, we could all hear him.” According to Maruping, Nelani was lying face down on the floor of the cell when he saw a doctor enter. “A doctor went into the cell and injected Nelani in his neck. Then they closed the cell door.”

Mxolisi Ndaba was also positioned on the upper floor of the isolation unit and followed what happened in Broadway, through the slit of the opened feeding hatch. “I heard Nelani scream, as the ninjas electroshocked him,” he recounts. “Then they dragged him into the dark room and the door closed. We all thought he was attacked in there.”

Ouba Mabalane was in the cell next to Ndaba. “They tortured him to death. I could hear him screaming. After he died, EST members hung up clothes to make it look like he committed suicide.”

An inmate tasked with cleaning the cells found Nelani dead when he served dinner around 5pm. Strangely, his statement was not included in the magistrate’s inquest and none of the warders who did issue statements mention him. That inmate has since been released on parole and he met with the WJP last year. He indicated that he wanted to remain anonymous, for fear of his parole being revoked. According to him, officials from G4S instructed him to state that Nelani died as a result of suicide, whereas he claims to have written to the DCS controller (a governmental official working at the prison who is supposed to oversee legal compliance of the company) that Nelani died as a result of a beating.

Maruping witnessed what might be the most chilling part of this tragic tale. “He opened the door to the cell and started shaking Nelani. Nelani was lying face down, with his hands cuffed behind his back. The inmate notified Maluleke who then made a phone call. Not much later, several officials entered the section. They went into the interview room in the corner of Broadway. When they came out, one of them was wearing rubber gloves and three men entered the cell and when they came out, I could see Nelani hanging from the door. His handcuffs had been removed.”

Inmate Tebogo Bereng also left Mangaung prison in a body bag, allegedly following an altercation about a blanket. On March 31 2013, Bereng, whose cell was in the Port Phillip unit, died in an isolation cell in the Wolds unit. His cellmate at the time, Lawrence Sehhonka, wrote to the WJP that Bereng had wanted to change his “inner duvet”, but the supervisor had refused. A verbal altercation broke out and the EST was called. “Supervisor called the EST to come and collect Tebogo Bereng to Broadway. Tebogo was shocked by the ninjas at that time.” Sehonka wrote.

Inmate Hlello Mbatyazwa saw Bereng arrive at the prison hospital. “Four or five Ninjas electroshocked him in the corridor at the entrance of the hospital, where there are no cameras. They put their shields to his head. Tebogo was handcuffed and he was screaming and trying to protect himself.”

Another inmate, Vusimuzi Nkonyana, saw Bereng leaving the hospital: “I saw him coming from the hospital as they were taking him to segregation. It looked like he was fitting.”

Bereng was an epilepsy patient, he wrote to the WJP in 2014 complaining about expired medication he was given for his epilepsy.

The ninjas escorted Bereng to an isolation cell in the Wolds unit. Some hours later, warders found Bereng lifeless in his cell and he was brought back to the hospital where a doctor declared him dead at 13:52. The doctor writes “post mortem requested” at the bottom of the medical form that was submitted to Chantelle Liebenberg, a pathologist at the state mortuary in Bloemfontein. Liebenberg however, only performed an external exam—a post mortem includes an internal exam—on April 2 and determined that the cause of death was natural, based on her examination and  information given to her by the prison. She writes: “according to the inmate who shared a room with him, he started not feeling well and collapsed”. His cellmate, however, wrote to the WJP stating that he saw Bereng having a conflict with the warders and he saw the EST escort—a then still healthy—Bereng out of the unit.

The worrying inconsistencies do not stop here. Bereng’s brother Bassie recalls: “G4S phoned us and told us that Tebogo had died in his cell.” Bereng’s younger brother Robert: “We went to Mangaung prison where they handed us Tebogo’s belongings, but no one would talk to us.” When Robert saw the body of his brother at the state mortuary, things became even stranger. “He had a split lip, there was still dried-up blood on his lips.” Later, in the funeral home, Robert touched his brother’s body around his kidneys. “Some brown stuff, like cream, came off and the skin below was greenish.”

Nelani’s and Bereng’s suspicious passing are not the first or last death that has raised eyebrows at the embattled prison. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) in its 2014 report signalled : “the contractor [G4S] breached clause 20 of the Concession Contract and Emergency Order No 3 namely by failing to comply with operating procedures by not getting into the cell immediately when they became aware of a suicide and resuscitating the inmate, failing to preserve the crime scene and failing to inform the controller within an hour of the incident”. It further stated that G4S had not provided an autopsy report for an alleged suicide that took place on August 13 2013.

In the section of the DCS draft report that the WJP has in its possession it further reads: “Death investigation reports are either not available, signed or include an autopsy report. MCC to confirm that all unnatural deaths are reported to the Police and next of kin and also that a record is kept of all deaths at MCC.”

A leaked internal email, exchanged among duty directors and managers at G4S during October 2012 reveals a possible culture of covering up. Tertius du Toit, the manager Compliance writes: “Hi, please be informed that it has come under my attention that this inmate tried to hang himself last night.” He goes on to explain that the inmate was removed from Broadway to health care, but there was no registration of his removal in the records, neither at Broadway nor at the hospital. The managers and directors on duty that day make no mention of the attempted hanging either. Du Toit then warns the addressees: “I personally think that there are a few ‘gaps’ that need appropriate attention and that if it gets to the wrong ‘ears’ we could have huge problems in terms of not reporting.”

However, despite evidence of non-compliance by their officials in terms of use of force, the obligation not to torture and the correct handling of deaths in custody, G4S was handed back control of the prison a year ago. Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha visited the jail shortly after the handover and said to the media that he was “very impressed with the state-of-the-art facility”. The department issued a press release in which they stated they were satisfied that the “issues” in Mangaung Correctional Centre had been resolved. Why then DCS has taken so long to finalise and publish their report on Mangaung prison is as big a mystery as the murky deaths of the Bereng and Nelani.

Department of correctional services responds

Your inquiry, with regards to Mangaung Correctional Centre (MCC), refers.

As stated previously, with regards to the investigation into MCC, there are still outstanding matters and further investigations are continuing, with more information and source documents being requested, based on issues emanating from the preliminary report.

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) has, most importantly, succeeded in stabilising the situation at the centre, and in restoring effective control, discipline and rehabilitation programmes. In terms of the Correctional Services Act and other relevant legislation, any person/s found guilty of any violation/s must face the consequences of their actions. To this end, DCS is ensuring that no stone is left unturned in this investigation and any person/s found guilty will face the full might of the law.

1. When is the DCS report on Mangaung prison going to be finalised?
The draft report confirmed the necessity for further investigation into a number of areas. Therefore, as further investigations are continuing, at this stage there is no “final” report.

2. Will it be made public?
DCS has not acceded to requests, in terms of PAIA, for the report to be made public.

3. Why has it taken so long to finalise? It’s been nearly two years since Minister Ndebele announced the investigation.
The team appointed to take over Mangaung had to deal with stabilising, and managing, the centre, in addition to conducting the investigation. Several shortcomings, particularly in terms of accessing source documents, were identified, leading to the need for further responses from BCC.

4. Why did a draft DCS report (a section of which the WJP has in its possession) contain this information about the death of inmate Isaac Nelani?
“In respect of death of Isaac Nelani, a discrepancy exists between MCC [Mangaung Correctional Centre] and pathologist records, MCC records the death as a suicide, whilst pathologist records it as a head wound.”
DCS is not aware of any reference to a head wound with regard to Isaac Nelani. We request that such information be provided to DCS for investigation.

5. Why is there a discrepancy between the draft report and the pathologists’ report? Which information did the DCS task force base its comments on?
As far as DCS is aware, none of the documents refer to a head wound.

6. Why have the people involved in Nelani’s death not been questioned or brought to justice?
Following an investigation into Nelani’s death by the Departmental Investigation Unit (DIU), the matter was referred to the SAPS for criminal investigation. DCS does not have the mandate to conduct a criminal investigation.

7. What kind of consequences, if any, does G4S have to face for the death of Isaac Nelani? The pathologist deemed the death “suspicious” and he points out that blunt force caused the bruising of the heart, which indicates severe injury/assault.  
Should there be a finding in any case that the procedures/policies or terms of contract have not been adhered to by the Contractor, DCS refers the case to the Supervisory Committee for a ruling on penalties against the Contractor. As stated above, DCS can only act in terms of the contract and cannot initiate a criminal investigation. However, where DCS becomes aware of possible criminal liability, the matter is referred to the SAPS.

8. JICS signals another suspicious death, on 13 August 2013 of an inmate named Mosotho. No pathology report was provided. What is DCS doing about this?
The National Commissioner has appointed a Task Team to look into all unnatural deaths at MCC. In this regard, all necessary documents have been requested from the Contractor. Where these documents have not been submitted (and should be in terms of the Contract), the matter is referred to the Supervisory Committee in terms of the Contract. Any possible criminal investigation will be referred to the SAPS. It must be understood that DCS does not have this capacity (of the Task Team) immediately available, and personnel are drawn from their current duties. As such, this takes some time. The matter of Mosuthu has been referred to a magistrate for an inquest. The inquest docket would have a pathologist’s report.

9. Inmate Tebogo Bereng was epileptic and according to eyewitness accounts, he was electroshocked repeatedly to the head on 31 March 2013, which most likely caused his death. Is DCS aware this happened? Will DCS investigate this death?
Please refer to response above.

10. The DCS draft report also mentions: “Death investigation reports are either not available, signed or include an autopsy report. MCC to confirm that all unnatural deaths are reported to the Police and next of kin and also that a record is kept of all deaths at MCC.” What is DCS doing about this?
Please refer to response above.

11. Does DCS consider G4S capable of running a prison if it covers up deaths in custody and fails to provide death investigation reports and pathologist’s reports?
Until investigations have been completed, DCS is unable to comment in this regard. DCS certainly takes any allegations of deaths in custody seriously. Hence, the appointment of the Task Team. However, the non-availability of documentation cannot always be said to be the fault of the Contractor, and, hence, the need for an investigation.

12. What kind of fines have been issued against G4S? How many and what is the amount?
In terms of the Correctional Services Act, Section 112 was instituted against the Contractor.

Read this article on Mail & Guardian.

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.