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Mangaung Maximum Security Private Prison

Like a scholarly gentlemen van Rooyen sits reading in Mount Gambia – the academic wing of  Mangaung Maximum Security Private Prison (MMSPP) prisons academic wing. 

Formerly illiterate, the ‘”respected” high ranking ex-‘Kaptein’ of the notorious ‘26 prison gang’, had never in his entire life opened a book, let alone entered a schoolyard.

It took precisely three months before he was reading in Afrikaans, his mother tongue. Nowadays he reads and writes fluently, lives in a ‘semi-private’ cell resplendent with pillows, mattress and duvets, and van Rooyen has been placed on the inmates advanced privilege level, having miraculously transformed his natural gift for criminality into that of a scholar.

The shrivelled convict smiles toothlessly his sunken cheeks receding further into his skull, “Ach, it’s still prison, but it’s the best I can do inside. In all the other prisons, nobody offered to teach me how to write or read. “It’s lekker.  I don’t even feel like smuggling dagga or belonging to a gang. I spend three hours every day studying at the school. Then I do my homework. . I am in Standard two now. Before leaving prison I am going to reach standard six.”

“When I get out, I will be due for pension and a quiet life. I am going to teach my son, who is currently in Pollsmoor, not to be the same as I used to be,” the emaciated 1.71 cm man says proudly. 

“I’ve served 18 years. Lucky for me, when the new Government came into power, my death sentence was converted to 20 years. Van Rooyen’s life has taken such an about turn that that the former armed robber, attempted escapee, hunger striker, murderer, gang member and drug trafficker is soon to appear before a parole board.

Angelic looking John Hoare’s story is not dissimilar to van Rooyens.  The 27-year old is serving life sentence, for stabbing his abusive stepfather to death.  One of 1 000 prisoners awaiting trial for eighteen months, Hoare’s trial lasted thirteen days. He was incarcerated for murder on ‘common purpose’. 

Hoare too was transferred to Mangaung Maximum Security Private Prison (MMSPP) in December 2001, where he too is awaiting an appeal date. 

 “This prison keeps me away from the dagga and the gangs. Before my transfer, I belonged to the ‘Airforce gang.’ In Departments Correctional Service (DCS) if you aren’t a gang member you pay a high forfeit. Here I don’t have to be so active. I wouldn’t voluntarily transfer back to a Departmental Correctional Service (DCS) prison.  I have even gained 6 kg. I couldn’t eat the food in DCS at all.

“I’ve learnt skills I can use on the outside.  I have a couple of bucks, and have become a candle-making instructor. I reckon I can open a candle-making factory when I get out, or become an electronic technician.  I am semi-skilled in that field.”

“Make no mistake though, if you don’t want to be rehabilitated it doesn’t matter where you are nor the amount of opportunities you’re given, you will remain committed to crime.” 

MMSP, is the first (of two) South African Private Prisons and  the brainchild of the first Post Apartheid Minister of Correctional Services, Dr. Sipo Mzimela, who upon taking office in 1996 was appalled by South African Prison conditions, which were Dickensean-old, dilapidated, filthy, overcrowded unhygienic, up to 300% overcrowded, and a seething hotbed of corruption.  Revelations’ aplenty mushroom about the prevailing corrupt and brutal lifestyle in most SA prisons, where overcrowding is a major factor. In one of the cells prisons cells there were once 101 inmates jam-crammed together. In such conditions reformation is impossible.

MMSPP is a directory of firsts - a model prison, perfect in every way, as partnership between the public and the private sector; a public private prison (PPP) operated.  Privately financed, designed, built and operated – perfect in every way is the Government partnership with Global Solutions South Africa, (Pty) Ltd running the prison .

MMSP’s Managing Director Frikkie Venter was carefully headhunted and authorised to “provide superior services at the prison”. Venter’s task of “Gearing For Rehabilitation”; taking the most dangerous convicts and training them for a productive life in line with the Human Rights as entrenched in the South African Constitution.

When Mangaung opened its doors in July 2001 to accommodate approximately 3000 prisoners it was hailed as the most revolutionary and monumentally safe prison worldwide.

The Law Society of South Africa called “the joint venture between Government and the private sector as a ‘Good News Story.’”

On a recent day I found myself at Bloemfonteins MMSP where I was thoroughly frisked from head to toe in a manner that would terrify a suicide bomber before being passed through metal detectors.  Everything and everybody passing a certain point is inspected with a fine tooth-comb, including priests, directors, even staff members, who must enter prison empty handed with only the clothing on their back..

Managing Director Frikkie Venter was waiting for us in the Executive Office. Venter has only known prison life from the outside that is. His career rise spans almost three decades starting back when he joined Correctional Services as a guard to Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and the Rivonia political convicts on Robben Island. Since then he has worked in every aspect of the correctional services, including administration and communications Venter is difficult to read, but he watches, listens and notices a great deal.

Walking along the pristine corridors, Venter explained, “Before opening this prison I advertised for 324 new inexperienced staff members. I wanted a clean slate alleviating opportunities for corruption.

“We received 25 000 responses. Our Head Of Development social worker Masonette is an exception. She has worked in prisons since 1988 including a time in Pollsmoor Prison where she was  the only social worker among 3 000 inmates. At MMSPP she has 10 social workers, and four qualified full time psychologists for 3 000 prisoners.  Forty per cent of our warders are females who fearlessly mingle with dangerous inmates. They carry no weapons other than two-way radio and treat inmates humanely, without ever becoming too familiar. Our warders rely on conflict resolution and conflict training.”

“Warders are aware these are all maximum security, high- risk dangerous criminals with 80% of them serving a minimum of 15- year sentence with 80% belong to gangs. We have no criteria of who comes here. That’s the Government’s job.”

Venter leads us into the control room, nerve centre of the prison and it’s like travelling years forward into a science fiction space station. “This,” gestures Venter sweepingly, “is a multi-million-Rand security service, manned by three people on rotating shifts - ‘twenty four-by-seven’.   Every movement is on camera. There are hours of footage. Underground cameras even scrutinize the inside of delivery trucks.”

In every one of the prisons six units are eight ‘streets’ with four and two man cells. Sections are self-contained with washing machines and tumble-driers operating continuously.  The ten showers per unit have free condoms available from a machine adjoining the tiled showers. There is also a complaints box where anonymous complaints are placed, and there is an interview room on each floor.

Contractually cells have to be kept unlocked 12 hours daily. The prisoners are kept active every moment from 7.30 am to 8pm, Cells open and shut automatically at the click of a button from the works station downstairs. 

This author has visited many prisons where inmates lounge stoned in darkened corridors, or mill like agitated psychotics. I have never witnessed such a self-contained prison lifestyle, with such freedom of movement and lack of cramping.

Seeing a South African prison recreation centre with a pool table, gym and gym instructor and two television stations is a surreal experience. And, unlike other prisons a food trolley delivers food and it’s served on blue tables and chairs.

It’s a brave prisoner who risks smuggling or taking drugs. I stood frozen witnessing highly trained Alsatian sniffer-dogs roaming the prison streets and downstairs recreation centre. Random checks such as this take place regularly.  

We toured the twelve workshops – each a hive of activity from a book binding to a candle making shop; from leatherworks, to clothing and footwear factory, and even a furniture manufacturer.

“Wares from our factories are given to the Community Trust selling them at a lower rate to the disadvantaged community.  These factories were non-existent in this area before and this way, at least if inmates are not entirely rehabilitated, they will be returned as better people into our society. We need to give these alternatives a choice.”

The 600 pupil education centre with its 16 classrooms, two for extra lessons classes is innovative, an eye opener. Many inmates begin here by literally learning how to hold a pen.  Everything from full time computer training and access to legal reference exists.   Prisoners can prepare for their own appeals and trials, with computers available for legal reference.  In 2002 the pass level for matric students at the prison was 88%. The vocational training with its 11 courses and the arts section is no less impressive, with Group 4 winning 75% of the Orange Free State Nicro Arts competition.

We cross the grounds making our way towards the ‘religious corner’ passing the flower gardens where I chat to Phillip Ndyane, bent lovingly softening potting soil .He stands, smiles and shakes my hand. “I was transferred from Max C Prison in Pretoria.  I am in the maximum- security prison category. I committed a murder in Queenstown in 1988. We did wrong things in the other prisons; - rape, wyfies (wives)”, dagga, drugs. Some of the warders took money for things. I like it here, working in the gardens.”

Chaplain Dawid Kuyle of the Uniting Reform Church says, “Working here as a chaplain is a pleasure. I have been a prison chaplain for seven years.  We are open twelve hours each day. In other prisons you may get two hours of religion daily.  MMSPP employs forty-seven Ministers from thirty-four different religions.  This is the only prison in the country I know of with a Rastafarian Minister.  We have a sound system and religious music, a video and a TV machine, a Baptism Mobile Pool and indigenous religious groups are allowed to use drums.” 

But the prison hospital takes first prize. Outsourced to Afrox, a private health care system, there are 54 beds, always occupied.   Two on sight doctors are on call twelve hours daily, and a night call doctor.  With 13 000 patients annually, they have their hands full. Within three months alone there were 11 AIDS patients’ deaths, (as opposed to only two deaths from assault and suicide.)  The figures continue escalating. “In three or four years AIDS will increase by 34%. We will have an entire unit with 488 inmates all chronic HIV patients,” Venter intones flatly.

Patient Abraham Banda (38) seats himself beside the nurse station, his pyjamas hanging from bony shoulder blades. “I have been in prison for three years. Before then I was a ladies man. I didn’t believe the stories about AIDS. I had never seen it.  Suddenly I got sick. I vomited. I was weak. I couldn’t walk. I became critically ill.. Now I am on a high protein diet. I went from 39kg to 69kg.    Most of the others have given up. They don’t eat or do anything for themselves.  I was so surprised. I got antiretroviral medicine here for free that costs R300. The doctors are kind and it’s clean. In my prison cell unit lots of them have AIDS. Sodomy is the big problem in the prison.”

By the time I left the enormous prison that evening my feet were sorry they hadn’t been wheeled.

The doors clicked shut behind Venter and I, my voice flying in the hot wind as I asked.

“Is this the only solution to our high rate of crime?   At a fee of R200 per day for the taxpayer as opposed to R98 in DCS prisons, do these hardened criminals deserve such attention when 28219 juveniles many between 7 and 14 years spend their days in prison.  Young people, idling in cells, without anything to do does not bode well for the future of our society.”

I tell Venter that I believe the Government is doing things back to front?

“Why not rather spend tax payers’ money on a rehabilitation centre of this nature for the 15303 waiting trial prisoners? In Western Cape’s notorious Pollsmoor prison designed for 1 600, there are currently 3, 869 prisoners.  Just more than 1 200 of these prisoners have been sentenced, the rest await trial – one having spent four years awaiting trial. Surely it’s more beneficial to rehabilitate juveniles, petty criminals and first time offenders rather than hardened criminals, most of them facing life imprisonment and others who only look at the world and wonder what’s in it for them to take?”

“It’s positively worth the investment. Warehouse these prisoners with no facilities and what happens when they are released into society?”  Venter dryly points thumb behind his back towards the gates we just left. 

You the readers decide!



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