Keeping an eye on Sun City inmates

Tebogo Monama

Tebogo Monama

The Department of Correctional Services is very cagey about allowing reporters into prisons, citing security concerns.

But this week they eased restrictions and let us into the Johannesburg Maximum Prison.

Operation Vala was under way and festive season security safety plan was also unveiled.

Inmates were surprised to see an emergency security team (EST) march into their cells to search them.

The EST is a branch of a highly trained tactical team that deals with crisis situations such as riots and hostage taking in prisons.

But officials are not allowed to enter prisons with guns for fear that they might be overpowered by the criminals and disarmed.

To curb crime and smuggling of illegal items into the prison officials raid the cells at least twice a week. This week's raid was different in that they were trying to be ready for the festive season.

Department spokesman Samantha Ramsewaki said they expected a lot more illegal items during the festive season. Johannesburg Prison, popularly known as Sun City, is more than 200 percent overcrowded.

"The prison was built for 1200 inmates but we have at least 4000," Ramsewaki said. "We receive 50 new inmates weekly and release on average only five. This does not help with the overcrowding."

The overcrowding is evident in the cells. They should accommodate 35 inmates but have at least 100. Most of them share beds and others sleep on the floor. They share one toilet and two showers.

To have your turn in the shower some inmates have to wake up as early as 2am. Though overcrowded, the cells are relatively clean.

During the searches the inmates vacate the cells and line up outside. They have to face down while they wait their turn to be frisked.

The searches are thorough. They even search the soles of their shoes. A nurse from the prison hospital also goes around with the team to confirm that the pills that some inmates have are real and not drugs. The inmates do not resist.

Maybe they are scared of the burly officials or mean dogs that are sniffing around.

On Wednesday dagga, sharpened cutlery, money and five cellphones were confiscated.

"If we confiscate things in the cells it is hard to link them to a specific prisoner. But if we find something illegal on them we charge them or hand them over to the SAPS."

For such a big and overcrowded prison it is strange that they have not had an escape in two years.

Deputy area commissioner Kenny Bouwer said: "We must always be ready."