British multinational company exposed for its inhumane treatment of SA prisoners and correctional officers
After almost a decade of investigation, author Ruth Hopkins has exposed security company G4S for its brutal treatment of prisoners at Mangaung Correctional Centre in Bloemfontein and the failure of the Department of Correctional Services to take appropriate action.
On Wednesday 3 September, G4S and the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) were the focus of a Don’t Shut Up Conversation between the author of The Misery Merchants: Life and Death in a privatised South African Prison, Ruth Hopkins, and activist and author Mark Heywood.
It all started in 2012 when Hopkins was working for the Wits Justice Project (WJP), an investigative journalism project at the University of the Witwatersrand. The WJP investigates miscarriages of justice in the South African criminal justice system such as wrongful convictions and torture in prisons.
Hopkins noticed that many letters were arriving at the WJP from Mangaung Correctional Centre – a state-of-the-art prison in Bloemfontein equipped with a well-stocked and advanced hospital. These letters varied in nature, from issues regarding a prisoner’s legal process to healthcare issues. Nothing alarming, says Hopkins.
However, while investigating a claim of wrongful conviction (it turned out the man was in fact correctly convicted) at the prison, Hopkins decided to interview all the prisoners who had written to the WJP. The inmates raised several alarming issues.
“They claimed that there was a riot team in the prison nicknamed ‘the Ninjas’. This team would use their electrified shields to electrocute inmates if they were misbehaving or if they wanted them to do something,” says Hopkins.
Inmates told Hopkins that they were forcibly injected with a substance that made them walk, talk, and feel like a “zombie” – a claim which Hopkins later found to be true.
“I found out that the prison was injecting them against their will with antipsychotic drugs without them having psychotic problems or a psychotic history.”
Hopkins recalls one such instance of a man who, showing no signs of psychosis or psychotic behaviour, was forcibly injected with antipsychotic drugs from 2004 to 2007.
“He protested; he did not want it. He started getting increasingly serious side effects, which eventually became permanent. By the time I interviewed him in 2013 he was slurring his words and he could not control the movement of his neck or limbs.”
Hopkins had the help of people on the inside, including a prison gang general who gave her the names and prison numbers of inmates who claimed to have been injected or electroshocked. This prisoner also provided the names of inmates who had died under very suspicious circumstances.
Prison guards also claimed to be victimised. Dan Mbelwane, a correctional officer at Mangaung prison, was equally helpful in Hopkins’ investigation. He said one of their main problems was the porcelain toilets in the facility.
“Inmates would regularly smash them and then use the shards to stab wardens,” says Hopkins, adding that although prison guards had complained about this for years, the multinational security company had ignored their pleas.
Mbelwane organised several strikes, which led to an uncontrollable situation at the prison.
“The prison guards stayed away. The prisoners started rioting, they were not being fed, and they were barely let out their cells during this time. It was complete chaos,” says Hopkins.
This led to the DCS triggering Article 112 of the Correctional Services Act, which states that if a private prison contractor has lost control of the prison, the state will step in.
In 2013, shortly after the DCS took over the prison and nearly 18 months after her investigation began, Hopkins’ work was aired in outlets such as the Mail & Guardian, the BBC, and the investigative television programme Carte Blanche.
Not long after, the Minister of the DCS at the time S’bu Ndebele, announced that he would investigate and that a report would be produced within 30 days.
“He [Ndebele] also stated very boldly that the privatisation of prisons has failed,” says Hopkins.
Unfortunately, Ndebele was sent to Australia as a high commissioner and the department never released the report. Hopkins says it took the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits “nearly six years to demand that report on the [basis of] the Freedom of Information Act in South African courts”.
The DCS had control of the prison for 10 months. However, during that time, things got worse and because G4S was no longer running the prison, it was being paid for by the department.
Heywood points out that for the department to run such a state-of-the-art prison and keep it going is extremely costly, not for the state, but for us, the taxpayers.
Private prisons in South Africa were first proposed by Sipho Mzimela, democratic South Africa’s first minister of correctional services, on the basis that prisons run by private enterprise would be more financially viable and more efficiently built.
“To a certain extent, Mzimela was right, because in the end when G4S got the contract they filled the prisons within three months instead of the usual 18 months.”
Hopkins says the National Treasury investigated the two private prisons in South Africa. In 2003, the Treasury released its findings, which showed that G4S and its shareholders were earning a 30% return on equity.
Even worse, the price per inmate per day was tripling and despite its best efforts, the Treasury found that the contract was non-negotiable.
“I think it should be investigated by the Zondo Commission. The investigation the National Treasury carried out in 2003 flags all sorts of highly suspect and problematic financial aspects of this contract,” says Hopkins.
Essentially, the government with whom G4S signed the contract had no means of amending it and the next Treasury also discovered that the company could add endless items to the bill.
“You can already see how then, in those first few years, that from a money point of view, it was very lucrative for private prison contractors,” says Hopkins.
In contrast, for both inmates and the government, it was not an “attractive” deal or situation. So, effectively, you are selling off a part of our prison system to a private company, adds Heywood.
In her book, Hopkins writes “in a country with such a vibrant, often volatile debate around race and wealth, it was fascinating to see a powerful British security conglomerate earn a profit from incarcerating South Africa’s poorest citizens.”
The culpability of G4S
In August 2014, the prison was handed back to G4S without explanation.
“There was no declaration of whether or not the allegations were true; the prison was just given back to G4S,” says Hopkins
At the time, the DCS minister visited the prison and announced that it was a state-of-the-art facility.
“It seemed as if the government was not interested in holding G4S accountable. And that is where, in my mind, a cover-up started. The Department of Correctional Services or any other state body have, to this day, not held G4S accountable.”
G4S is the biggest private security provider in the world. It has a presence in 90 countries and employs close to 500,000 people.
“It runs prisons, not with a lot of success, I must say, but it runs prisons in the UK, Australia and South Africa,” says Hopkins.
The British Financial Times wrote that “G4S is an organisation of a scale and scope rarely seen in the private sector since the 18th century, when the East India Company ran its own army, ruled large parts of the British Empire and implemented some of the most controversial government policies of the age.”
“Sadly, it is not just restricted to South Africa. They [G4S] have a pretty bad track record in other countries as well. For example, in 2004 in the UK, three guards killed a juvenile while trying to restrain him by sitting on him. In Papua New Guinea huge riots broke out and it led to many refugees becoming injured, with one of them dying,” says Hopkins.
She adds that there is an extensive list of complaints and scandals attached to G4S’s alleged use of torture in the US. G4S also had a contract to run services in Guantanamo Bay.
A broken system
Hopkins’ book does not only talk about the actions of excessive pricing and “fiddling contracts”, as Heywood puts it. It is about murder, torture, and serious human rights violations. To date, no one has been held accountable, despite everything that Hopkins uncovered about G4S and the Department of Correctional Services.
“This case was put to the Zondo Commission. They are fully aware of it. As far as I know, they have not taken any action,” says Hopkins.
“It is as if the Constitution did not exist,” says Heywood. “Section 35 of our Constitution has a very long section on the rights of prisoners, and it is intended to not only protect people who have been found guilty, but people who have been charged and are awaiting trial. And the reason for that is because of what happened under apartheid.”
Hopkins says another port of call for inmates who are experiencing violence and abuse and unlawful things should be the police.
“I was at the prison one day and then there was a SAPS officer who said to me, ‘Yeah, these inmates, they always lie. We don’t follow up on anything.’ And that is also reflected again, in what the prisoners and paperwork tell me: that every time all these profoundly serious human rights violations happen, they go nowhere.
“If the police do report it and it gets to the prosecution service, which is exceedingly rare, the cases are thrown out because of lack of evidence.
“It seems the entire system is sort of setting up against these inmates. And that also goes to show that the entire prison system in South Africa is problematic. The rights of inmates are not respected, the Constitution is not respected.”
Why we should care about the rights of prisoners
Heywood asks what most people are thinking: Should we care about any of this? South Africa has an epidemic of crime and criminals who abuse and care nothing about people’s rights when they commit crimes. Haven’t we got better things to be investigating and worrying about than these prisoners?
Simply put, yes, we should care, says Hopkins.
“I would like to point out that not everyone in a South African prison is guilty. The number of wrongfully convicted people is high, because lots of mistakes are made by the police and the prosecution and so forth.”
Hopkins reminds us that although some of these prisoners have committed heinous crimes and some may feel that they deserve what is coming to them, they are still someone’s child, someone’s friend, and someone’s sibling.
As a domestic abuse survivor, Hopkins does not say this lightly. If we allow torture, we are not only tormenting those who are guilty, but we are condemning their loved ones to a world of pain and worry. Hopkins says we also forget that these prisoners are supposed to return to society.
“Ultimately, all prisoners are supposed to reintegrate in society and to rehabilitate. That is the whole idea of prisons, rehabilitation of these people. And that is the given goal of all the correctional legislation in South Africa, and it is not living up to that goal,” says Hopkins.
“If you want a crime-free society, if you want to leave your house and feel free and safe, then it’s not in this society’s interest to treat inmates like animals while they’re inside, because when they’re outside, they’ll start acting like animals.”
What is next?
Hopkins tells stories of intimidation by G4S and the Department of Correctional Services.
“I also started to get intimidated by Zach Modise, who was the national commissioner for Correctional Services. He sent an extremely high-up DCS official to my office who told me to stop talking to a source I was meeting completely anonymously and off the record. He started sending me personal text messages and his spokesperson told me that they intercepted my communication.”
Despite subtle threats and intimidation attempts, Hopkins refuses to give up.
“Many inmates and prison guards still feel very strongly that the Zondo Commission should look into this.
“There is all of this evidence of irregularities, all this evidence of huge public funds being funnelled into this prison, and huge evidence of irregularities and abuse going on. It deserves an investigation.”
Former Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron gave a recommendation on the back cover of the book. Cameron is now an inspecting judge and Hopkins hopes that this book will be of real assistance to him.
Heywood explains that, at its core, Misery Merchants is a story about “prisoners and how we treat them: individual men versus one of the most powerful companies in the world.
“But trying to understand that issue raises critical questions of philosophy, economy, state power and justice.” DM/MC
Ruth Hopkins is an award-winning investigative journalist based in South Africa. She worked as a journalist and editor with the Wits Justice Project in Johannesburg from 2012 to 2018, producing content about wrongful convictions, lengthy remand detention, police brutality and various other criminal justice issues.
Hopkins authored a book on trafficking women into Europe, I will never let you go again (published in 2005) based on five years of research in Albania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and the Netherlands.
The book has now been turned into a film, Prisons for Profit. Watch the trailer for the film here.
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