Mangaung’s hellish prison: G4S not held accountable for human rights violations

The DCS took over Mangaung prison in October 2013, when security behemoth G4S lost control of the prison, amid a spate of stabbings and a hostage taking, which followed a protracted strike and dismissal of about two-thirds of the staff. In August last year DCS handed back the prison to G4S. The Minister of Justice, Michael Masutha, visited the jail shortly after the handover and stated that he was “very impressed with the state-of-the-art facility”. But Masutha made no mention of the DCS investigation which his predecessor, Minister Sbu Ndebele, announced when the news of gross human rights violations – including routine assaults, electroshocking, forced injections with anti-psychotic drugs and lengthy isolation of inmates – broke.

On 17 December 2013, former inmate Tebogo Meje was called to the office of the unit manager in Mangaung prison, a South African jail run by British security behemoth G4S. There, members of the Emergency Security Team (EST) – a team of warders also known as the ‘Ninjas’, armed with electrically charged shields and other non-lethal weapons – interrogated Meje. They asked him about the home-made weapons that were surfacing in the prison. Meje was not a member of the notorious prison gangs, who regularly stab each other and warders with weapons fabricated from shards of shattered toilet pots; on the contrary, he wasn’t even supposed to be in jail. One and a half years after the incident, the High Court acquitted him on appeal and he is now a free man again.

When Meje told the Ninjas he knew nothing of the knives, they didn’t let him go. “They made me lie on my stomach, stripped me of my shirt, poured water on me and then electroshocked me and kicked me,” Meje told the Wits Justice Project. “I had a swollen mouth, a swollen elbow and my skin was discoloured from the shocks,” he said.

Meje’s experience fits into a pattern of widespread abuse in Mangaung prison. In October 2013, I wrote a story for the South African Mail & Guardian and the British Guardian about routine assaults, electroshocking, forced injections with anti-psychotic drugs and lengthy isolation of inmates in the privately run prison. The expose was the culmination of a year-long investigation into the prison, consisting of interviews with approximately 70 inmates and dozens of warders, governmental reports and audio and video footage. It revealed a hellhole of a prison.

But Meje’s assault was also fundamentally different from other inmates, because he was not assaulted by G4S officials, but by warders working for the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). “There were about ten DCS officials in the room, who were talking at once and demanding answers.”

The DCS took over Mangaung prison in October 2013, when G4S lost control of the prison, amid a spate of stabbings and a hostage taking, which followed on the heels of a protracted strike and subsequent dismissal of about two thirds of the staff. In August last year DCS handed back the prison to G4S. The Minister of Justice, Michael Masutha, visited the jail shortly after the handover and stated to the media that he was “very impressed with the state-of-the-art facility”. The Department issued a press release: “As a department, we are satisfied that the issues that led to our takeover of the Mangaung Correctional Centre have been resolved and we will continue to work with G4S to ensure a phased handover and operation of the facility.”

Masutha made no mention of the DCS investigation which former Minister of Correctional Services S’bu Ndebele announced when the news of the human rights violations broke. Ndebele promised to “leave no stone unturned” and boldly stated that “the privatisation of prisons has failed”. In October 2013 he said the investigation would take 30 days, but one and a half years later there is still no report made available. Ndebele has disappeared from the political landscape.

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the South African Police (SAPS) have also not addressed the reported abuse in the prison.

The only attempt to hold G4S accountable for the abuse, is ironically taking place in G4S’ home country. British law firm Leigh Day represents inmates who allege they have been electroshocked, forcibly injected with anti-psychotic drugs and held in isolation for years. That case is expected to go to the London High Court end of this year.

So why has the South African state gone from promising to ‘leave no stone unturned’ to congratulating G4S on how they run the prison? History shows that it is not the first time that DCS ignored reports of abuse at the privately run prison.

In 2009, Tatolo Setlai, the controller – a DCS official tasked with legal oversight – at the prison, compiled a damning report. Setlai compared Mangaung prison to Guantanamo Bay prison and he highlighted the excessive use of electroshocks by the ninjas. Most importantly, he included a list of 62 inmates who had been held in isolation cells, from 3 months to 3 years, some of whom were denied life-saving medication for TB and HIV.

This report was sent to the then-Minister for Correctional Services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and the then regional commissioner for the Free State and the Northern Cape, Zacharias Modise. “The report was submitted to the Contract Management Section at Head Office for further investigation. The investigation found that the report by Setlai was one-sided, and there was no substance to the allegations. No further investigation, and/or action, was deemed necessary, DCS spokesperson Manelisi Wolela stated. The Wits Justice Project met with several inmates who confirmed they had been placed in isolation cells for up to four years. Setlai was never informed his report was deemed ‘one-sided’.

Whistleblower Setlai has not been treated well. G4S accused him of inciting inmates to riot. While the investigation yielded no evidence to substantiate that accusation, the minister of correctional services then decided to re-investigate Setlai twice for the same allegation (inciting inmates to riot). The regional office, headed by Zach Modise, was tasked with carrying out that investigation. In a sworn affidavit sent to the regional commissioner, Setlai responded: “I want to blow the whistle about what is happening at Mangaung Correctional Facility and if that I’m going to say is false, I want to be charged, criminally or departmentally.” This DCS investigation again did not provide any incriminating evidence. Modise then transferred Setlai to the regional office, instead of addressing the serious issues in Setlai’s report.

When the Department took control of the prison in October 2013, Modise’s name popped up again. He was appointed as DCS head of prison and in that capacity, was responsible for carrying out the investigation into the allegations of human rights violations. After the prison was handed back to G4S, Modise was promoted to acting National Commissioner of Correctional Services. He is now responsible for releasing the report.

Under Modise’s watch as head of prison, approximately 80 Mangaung inmates were transferred to a state-run maximum security prison in Kokstad, where they were placed in single cells. The conditions in that prison are very similar to solitary confinement: there is hardly any natural day light and the prisoners are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day and are not allowed much contact with fellow inmates or outsiders. Inmates in Kokstad can only make phone calls during the weekend, which impedes their access to police and lawyers and effectively bars them from opening criminal cases. Several inmates who spoke to the Wits Justice Project said that they were told that their transfer was because of their alleged involvement in riots in Mangaung prison, but no concrete evidence or charges have been presented. One of the inmates only arrived at Mangaung prison a day before he was transferred to Kokstad.

“Inmates transferred to Kokstad were those who were reclassified to ultra-maximum offenders, based on their behaviour. Kokstad is an ultra-maximum facility, and, due to the infrastructure and facilities at Kokstad, it is a norm that inmates are kept in single cells. Transfers to different centres across the country are still continuing,” DCS responded.

Modise also reinstated three warders who had been suspended by the controller because of a serious incident, which left an inmate blind in one eye. The Wits Justice Project has the email correspondence and lawyers’ letters that were exchanged between the controller and the prison management about this incident.

Mid-September 2013, some weeks before DCS took over; riots had broken out in the prison. The dismissal of 330 employees had made the prison practically unmanageable and inmates were kept in their cells for up to 23 hours, visits were suspended and they had no access to news media or educational programmes. The EST was called to the Buckley Hall unit, where prisoners had started a fire. One member of the EST team allegedly injured an inmate who was already lying down on the floor, by shooting him in the eye with a rubber bullet at close range and hitting him in the ear with the butt of a gun. He later lost sight in that eye. The injury was reported to the controller, who suspended the responsible G4S officials. Modise revoked the suspensions. “During preparations for the handing over of Mangaung Correctional Centre (MCC) back to G4S, and based on information at the time, the said officials were requested to return to their operational duties. However, based on further investigations, a decision has been taken to uphold their suspension from operational duties,” DCS’ Wolela responded. Warders at the prison though say these officials are not suspended, but have resumed duties at the prison.

The Department is not the only player in the field who is seemingly inactive in the face of serious allegations.

G4S and four South African shareholders form the consortium Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts (BCC), which signed the contract with the government in 2000, for the building, maintenance and running of the Bloemfontein maximum security prison. G4S, the biggest security provider in the world and the third biggest stock-listed private employer, with revenues worth £7.4bn, is tasked with the daily management of the prison. Insurance company Old Mutual is one of the four South African shareholders, while the other three are obscure Bloemfontein-based companies: Fikile Mangaung, Ten Alliance Mangaung and the Ekwezi Community Trust. According to various sources the local shareholders are getting increasingly worried that BCC might lose the R15bn (about £820m) contract. They urged the Free State branch of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) to negotiate the reinstatement of the dismissed workers, which would allow DCS to hand the prison back to G4S.

POPCRU also made a sudden U-turn in its approach to G4S. The provincial secretary of POPCRU, Lawrence Msinto told broadcaster EWN two years ago: “We are saying it’s enough with this private security with its historical background from London. It’s time that they get out of the country and we get direct service from the department.” A year ago though, Msinto changed his tune completely. “Our main interest is to get our workers back to work,” he said to the Wits Justice Project. Most of the 330 dismissed warders did indeed return to their old job, but none of their demands for increased security and salaries, have been met.

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services – a governmental prison watch dog – has also responded lukewarm to the allegations. It announced an investigation soon after the expose was published, but to date this has also not been forthcoming. “Mangaung provided the medical reports of inmates incarcerated at the time and medical personnel interviewed who admitted administering the injections. They (medical practitioner, health care manager and a psychologist) indicated that the administration of the drugs were justified as necessary and medically acceptable,” JICS wrote in its 2013/2014 annual report. JICS declined to comment, despite repeated requests.

JICS’ ‘medically necessary’ claim is not supported by video footage leaked to the WJP. The forced injection of inmate Bheki Dlamini was caught on camera. He is heard yelling ‘no, I am not a donkey’, as EST members dragged him, handcuffed, into a room. Several other inmates have told the Wits Justice Project that they were injected against their will, while they – like Bheki Dlamini – did not have a history of mental illness.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has likewise not followed up on any of the police reports filed by Mangaung inmates. Tebogo Meje reported the assault to the police, but his case and many others, are regularly thrown out because of lack of evidence. None of the warders involved in the alleged torture, or their managers, have been prosecuted.

In short, the DCS, JICS, the NPA, POPCRU and the shareholders have not made any concrete attempts to hold a foreign company accountable for alleged serious human rights violations in South Africa.

The only source of dissent in South Africa is the Parliament. The portfolio committee on correctional services asked Modise last year, in his capacity as the acting National Commissioner, why the DCS report on Mangaung prison has not been finalised and demanded he report back to Parliament when it is. James Selfe, DA MP and member of the committee: “the Committee received a truncated verbal report about Mangaung prison. We have not been briefed subsequently. This situation is clearly unsatisfactory and I have taken the matter up with the Speaker via our Whips.”

Read this article on Daily Maverick.

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.