10 years in solitary confinement: shock findings from SA's tightest prison

The Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) has called on the justice ministry to amend the Correctional Services Act to improve conditions at SA's most secure prison, Ebongweni.
The Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) has called on the justice ministry to amend the Correctional Services Act to improve conditions at SA's most secure prison, Ebongweni.
Image: Sunday Times / Thuli Dlamini

One prisoner at SA's super-maximum security prison Ebongweni has been held in solitary confinement for the last 10 years.

This is one of the shocking revelations made by the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) after an inspection of the prison in Kokstad, KwaZulu-Natal.

Inspecting judge Johann van der Westhuizen revealed that while the solitary confinement period (referred to as phase one) is meant to last for a minimum of six months and a maximum of three years, this was not always the case.

“One [inmate] has been there for more than four years and another for almost a decade,” he said.

This was contained in the summary of Van der Westhuizen's report, titled From Security to Cruelty, which he compiled after a three-year study of the facility.

He expressed concern over the criteria utilised to decide which of the country’s many criminals are admitted to the prison.

“The criteria for admission to Ebongweni are detailed but allow for a wide discretion by especially the regional commissioner, thus they are open to abuse. The experience of the judicial inspectorate for correctional services (JICS) suggests possible abuse — especially in the absence of explanations and documentation promised by the department of correctional services (DCS), which have not been forthcoming.”

Ebongweni, which is regarded as one of the most secure facilities in the southern hemisphere, has housed some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, including serial rapist and robber Ananias Mathe and Western Cape gang leader George “Geweld” Thomas.

No prisoner has ever escaped from Ebongweni.

Phase one of the prison facility is where inmates are kept upon arrival. They are held in single cells, which contain a bed, wash basin and toilet — all of which is behind a steel door. There is a small, dark window and a shoebox-sized opening below the window, which allows for food to be passed through.

“They are supposed to be taken out of the cell for one hour exercise per day alone, in very small courtyards. Reportedly this does not take place. The same applies to showering,” said Van der Westhuizen.

Inmates who are still in phase one are never exposed to other inmates — even during their hour of exercise, or when they are led from the cells to the courtyards or to the showers.

“The number of hours per day and the length of time of solitary confinement or 'segregation', to some extent allowed for by the CSA [Correctional Services Act], exceed international standards,” said Van der Westhuizen.

“The serious negative psychological and psychiatric consequences of prolonged solidarity confinement have been emphasised by experts. Some courts in other countries have found it to be cruel or inhuman punishment, or torture — prohibited by international law, as by the South African constitution.”

Van der Westhuizen said that while solitary confinement should be administered for security purposes and only as a last resort, he had found that the method was being abused.

“Evidence and allegations seem to suggest that it is used to punish and to extract confessions or information out of inmates,” he said.

In some cases, this has led to the injury and even the deaths of some inmates.

“Allegations (also under oath by a former senior DCS official), postmortem reports and correspondence involving the prosecuting authority have suggested assault and torture by senior officials in 2013 and prima facie murder by officials in 2009.”

To date, however, no one has been prosecuted for these cases. “JICS is still busy investigating these, awaiting information and [is] thus unable to reach conclusions,” he said.

While praising correctional services officials for welcoming his team to the prison during their inspections, Van der Westhuizen criticised the same officials for failing to provide them with information they had promised. He said this was “worrying and frustrating”.

He called on the national commissioner of correctional services to review:

  • The solitary confinement periods that inmates are subjected to;
  • The medical conditions of the prisoners;
  • Their contact with family members;
  • Whether the admission criteria to the facility were not being abused; and
  • The allegations of torture and murder of inmates.

He advised the commissioner to look in particular at the inmates who are currently in phase one of the prison, the length they have spent in solitary confinement and the reasons behind their confinement.

Van der Westhuizen said a report should be handed over to the minister of justice and correctional services Ronald Lamola by May 31 next year.

He further recommended that the ministry and parliamentary committees consider amending the CSA for it to align with international legal standards and guidelines, as well as the constitution.


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