Inside Pollsmoor's cells of shame

Mary-Anne Gontsana, GroundUp

Cape Town - Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron and his law clerks have published a scathing report of Pollsmoor Prison after visiting the remand centre - where awaiting trial prisoners are kept - and the women's centre on April 23. Some of their findings are consistent with those reported by GroundUp in May.

"The extent of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, sickness, emaciated physical appearance of the detainees, and overall deplorable living conditions were profoundly disturbing," states the report.

The Correctional Services Act empowers judges to visit prisons. In 2009, the Constitutional Court began a programme of prison visits and monitoring.

Pollsmoor, located in the up-market suburb of Tokai, Cape Town, has about 8 000 prisoners. It consists of the remand centre, women's centre, three facilities for prisoners who have been found guilty - Medium A, B and C - and two community corrections offices.

The judge's team found that the remand centre was "extremely overcrowded at over 300% capacity." It has 4 198 inmates.

"There is no question that each of the five centres is overcrowded. But the remand detention centre’s overcrowding problem is extreme," says the report.

They described the cells as filthy and cramped. Detainees share single mattresses. Some have to sleep on the floor.

"In one of the cells, we noted 60 inmates with 24 beds." There were no sheets on the beds in one cell.

A consistent theme in the report is the state of plumbing and sanitation. "The ablution facilities we saw were deplorable. 50 to 60 people are forced to use one toilet and one shower. The toilets we saw had no seats, and the showers lacked shower heads. No privacy is possible," the report states.

"Inmates are forced to flush the toilet with buckets. They are also forced to use the sink to bathe. And it appears they are also forced to use it to urinate. It appeared to leak and smelt of urine."

Cameron wrote that in one cell, "I checked the toilet. It did not flush. The sink did not drain. These plumbing problems produce a rancid stench."

Prisoners spoke to the visitors, "pleading" for exercise. Some said they had not been out their cell for a month. Pollsmoor staff claimed this was an exaggeration, but "they appeared to concede that no exercise had been permitted for at least two weeks and possibly more."

The report describes cells as dark, dingy and cold in the middle of the day. They lacked natural light and windows were broken.

"The thickness of the air and lack of ventilation was palpable. It raises the obvious question whether the Department is adhering to its own norms and standards," the report states. Prisoners also reported lack of access to books and the library.

Prisoners and medical staff also reported inadequate health care. The report states several interviewees complained of injuries and infections they have sustained that the medical staff have neglected.

Detainees pointed out visible injuries and infections to us. They claimed their ailments have not been attended to because they are not allowed adequate chance to see a doctor." Shortages of medicines, including penicillin, as well as medications for TB, diabetes and hypertension, were reported.

Scabies is a "a major and frequent medical problem" in the remand centre. It can be prevented with warm baths, "but the lack of hot water and clean bedding in cells exacerbates this problem." Prisoners complained of skin boils and severe itchiness. "Some detainees displayed rashes, boils, wounds and sores to us," the report says.

Some detainees said they had been assaulted by the staff. "One interviewee said he was given the 'beating of a life time' by one of the Pollsmoor correctional staff." He identified his assailant as one of the officials accompanying the team, a "Mr Hartle".

"We’re human beings, but we’re treated worse than animals," one prisoner told the judge and his team.

Similar problems were reported in the women's remand centre. "The remand cell visited was in as poor a condition as the male remand cells. Some 94 women were crowded into a poorly aerated room. The women shared beds or slept on the floor on thin, stinking mattresses.

"There was no working toilet, the sink drain was clogged and there was only cold water. They showed us tattered and torn sheets and blankets, which were infested with lice. They noted that the cell was also infested with cockroaches," the report says.

"Women complained that as remand detainees, they were not afforded library books or magazines to read. Fights often broke out. They attribute this to extreme boredom."

The team heard that 40 people are currently held in the remand centre solely because they are undocumented foreign nationals. Besides the fact that they are supposed to be kept separate from the prison population — they aren't - delayed decisions by the Department of Home Affairs on their immigration status means that some are kept longer than than 90 days. This means the migrants are being held by Pollsmoor illegally."

The report describes a litany of management problems. Pollsmoor is severely under-staffed. The ratio of prisoners to staff is four to one, but this is only half the minimum number of staff required to run the place.

A stock auditor is supposed to check that the prison is sufficiently stocked with medical supplies once a month, but the prison pharmacist "expressed concern that no stock auditor has visited Pollsmoor for a long time."

The report details attempts by the prison authorities to get buildings repaired, particularly the plumbing. Pollsmoor staff blamed the failure to do this on a seemingly dysfunctional relationship with the Department of Public Works.

Regional Commissioner Delekile Klaas said "budget constraints are a central problem." Pollsmoor's budget has actually declined. He also told Cameron and his team that "long sentences with no hope of release cause major problems. These include violence and gangs."

This leads to gang activities and fights. "Last week in D1 and C2 cells, the 26s and 28s, two gangs here, got into a fight which involved stabbings," he said.

It isn't all bad. The report describes the conditions in which the women inmates (as opposed to those in the remand section) positively.

"The female inmates gave a more hopeful account of their day-to-day lives than male detainees. They said they feel safe for the most part and receive enough food. They also receive one hour of exercise per day in the courtyard.

"They are can go to the library once every two weeks. They have books to read to keep their minds focused."

Cameron also noted "his respect and appreciation for the personnel’s professionalism and dedication, which were plainly in evidence during the visit."

The report includes a set of recommendations to address the problems, including that Parliament allocate more money to prisons. In response to the report's recommendations, the Pollsmoor Management Area Commissioner has drawn up an action plan "designed to address the deficiencies."