Doing Time: A Detailed Account of One Man’s Life Behind Bars in a South African Jail (Part 1 of 3)

It was a perfectly ordinary Monday in a quiet suburb when the whole world changed for two families who would begin a nightmarish journey through the justice system.

On the evening of 26 August 2002, Eric* killed his wife. The argument had been heated. He’d seen red, picked up the knife and stabbed Sarah* 13 times. Just over five years later, Eric, then aged 43, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He spent a total of six years and one month behind bars; convicted in July 2006 and released in August 2012.

This kind of crime happens every other day in South Africa. Focus is, necessarily, on the victim, the crime, and justice. But what happens once the perpetrator has been sentenced? I spent a number of hours with Eric, where he revealed a picture of life in a South African prison: how the system works and the lack of opportunity it provides for rehabilitation. This is his story.

Ordinary Beginnings

Eric grew up in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg, the middle child of four siblings born to a loving mother and father. He went to two prominent private schools before doing compulsory military service. He married his wife at age 30 and together they had two children. One would expect to see Eric shopping for groceries at Woolies, enjoying Rugby at the Baron with friends and going to work in a suit. He was ostensibly ordinary, middle class, and content with life.

Eric was never a particularly violent man. He sometimes lost his temper: at losing sports teams and unsuccessful business deals. In his youth he brawled and drank, and spent a night or two in holding cells for driving under the influence. This all fell under the spectrum of what most people, including his family and friends, termed “ordinary”. There was in all respects little indication that Eric would commit murder.

Coffee with a Killer

With eyes like blue ice, Eric sits confidently across the table as he recalls the details of his life in prison, as though delivering a winning pitch. On the morning of the interview, Eric had visited Leeuwkop prison to drop off some clothes for an old prison mate he claims was his cleaner during his stay. This man has since been released from Leeuwkop.

“A lot of people live under this myth that goes ‘lock ’em away and throw away the key’. This man, my cleaner, was sentenced to life in prison. He’s being released on Monday, after serving 20 years. He killed two people,” says Eric nonchalantly. “There’s no such thing as ‘life’ in the South African prison system. Sure, the very sick ones like serial killers will likely spend a long time behind bars but even they have a good chance of coming out one day.”

Eric shifts forward in his chair to draw focus to his next words: “If you as society were aware of that; would you want to participate more in the prison system? A lot people forget about you when you’re in prison. They see high walls and know that you’re inside so they don’t think about you anymore. That’s bullshit because every single one of those guys is going to come out; and sooner than you think. Do you want him to be rehabilitated or not?”

Most South African citizens expect harsher treatment of criminals, longer terms of imprisonment, and are unwilling to invest in improved conditions for prisoners. However, society expects that through the experience of incarceration, prisoners will not only be punished but also rehabilitated so that they do not re-engage in crime when they’re released. Eric believes otherwise: “The prisoner who isn’t rehabilitated is the man who’s going to come out and rape your wife, kill your children or steal from your home.” This might seem like a sensationalist statement, but there is an underlying truth here: Prisoners, especially those in maximum security sections, are degraded and stripped of dignity. There is very little in the way of rehabilitation. And if prisoners aren’t rehabilitated, they’re likely to come out of prison worse criminals.

“Prison has its own culture and if you allow it to engulf you, you too will adopt a prison culture; a criminal mind. You will speak like them, act like them, join their gangs and become part of this amoral society which will invariably lead you back into a life of crime on the outside,” says Eric.

Given Eric’s background, he had a much better chance than most of coming out and making a success of himself after spending time behind bars. He had the support of his family, emotionally and financially; an incredibly important factor contributing to his prison experience. There are thousands of other prisoners who have not had the advantages Eric has had and as a result have almost no chance of coming out well-adjusted or being able to contribute to society.

Adjusting to the Big House

Prisoners who have committed violent offences are accommodated together with others who have committed so-called “white collar” crimes. Where you are placed in prison depends on your prison sentence, not necessarily on the crime that brought you there. This means that a prisoner incarcerated for tax fraud could be in the same section as another sentenced for multiple murders.

In Johannesburg, prisoners awaiting trial all spend time in Johannesburg Prison, known as “Sun City”. The holding cells are in far worse condition than the cells for sentenced prisoners. Awaiting trial prisoners wear civilian clothes and there are no mattresses in the cells. Prisoners come and go all the time so there’s rarely a gap for the cells to be cleaned. Overcrowding is an understatement too — a cell built for 40 people will be crammed with 120 prisoners awaiting trial. There’s one hard bed and one toilet inside the cell for all 120 prisoners. The toilet is completely exposed with no cover for privacy. Eric didn’t go to the toilet for four days when he first arrived.

When a prisoner arrives at Sun City, after being processed, they get a round black rubber stamp on their foreheads to signify they’re the newbies. All of the newbies are put into the same “cage” with one toilet to share. “It’s so hot and there are cockroaches and people all over you and you’re confused and just standing there for hours. Then when they eventually release you, they release you in batches. You get four pieces of bread and a sachet of powdered juice and then sent to another cell. All you can smell is dagga. You can’t even see to the other end of the cell because there’s so much dagga. You’re so nervous that you just chain smoke. It’s a nightmare. It’s hell,” remembers Eric.

The entire prison is made of concrete and iron so the prisons are extremely cold, especially in winter. Prisoners will wear every item of clothing they have and wrap themselves up in prison blankets — likened to dog blankets — only these have been circulating the prison for years, sometimes unwashed, so they smell awful and are covered in faeces, vomit and other human excretions. The hard surfaces also enhance the ear-shattering noise levels, which contributes greatly to confusion and fear.

With hardened lips, Eric leans forward again and says: “You learn to play a very good social game. You can’t show weakness. You have to just be tough. I remember when I first got to prison, all I wanted to do was sit and cry; but you can’t. You have to hold it in and act tough. Some nights when it’s all dark and no one can see you, you get to just cry quietly, but during the day you have to put on this brave face as though everything’s lekker.”

Imagine suddenly being stripped of everything you own with no connection to your friends and family. Eric recalls that it was very frustrating initially because you’re not used to being so cut off. “I would phone my family as often as I could and get to hear about what was going on in the world.” In order to phone, Eric would have to stand in a queue for hours. “That sudden cut-off is very hard. You gaze out the window and just wish you could walk to the shop and get a Coke or feel a breeze, you know. There were some nights when you didn’t get food and all you could do was drink water to take away that pain of hunger.”

Eric goes on to speak about coming to terms with his fellow inmates: “Eventually you learn that they [prisoners] are, after all, just people. The majority of the men in prison just took a wrong turn and took to socio-economic crimes out of desperation. You haven’t got a job and you haven’t eaten for three months; what would you do to survive?”

Detention 101

Eric wistfully states he’d hoped there was a manual on the prison system. “No one explains how prison works. It’s something you just have to figure out going through it. Wardens are too concerned with what shoes you’re wearing and how long you spend on the public phone to tell you about things like studying and other things you can do with your time.”

There are two types of cells; single and communal. In communal cells there are between 60 to 70 people in a cell built for 40, even after sentencing. It does depend on the time of year though; prisons tend to get very crowded toward the end of the year and during January and February.

In communal cells there’s an internal “first in, first out” rule regarding the bed. Prisoners take it in rotation and as each prisoner leaves, or moves out, they move up the ranks for their turn to sleep on the bed. As money can get you anything, Eric would often pay the bed-sleepers for their turn.

In a maximum security prison, the lights are on 24/7, offering no relief from the artificial conditions. Inspections happen frequently, but irregularly, so inmates are often caught with things they’re not supposed to have. Sometimes, in communal cells, prisoners are subjected to full body cavity searches because hiding drugs or cellphones up the “back door” is a common occurrence.

Eric had a false letter of approval for his cooking pot and some other belongings. The note was hand-written by him and he bribed a clerk to stamp it. Most prisons are still run on hand-written carbon paper; there’s no digital age in prisons as far as internal process goes. So, it is relatively easy to forge approval documents and the like.

A prisoner would be in a serious heap of trouble if caught with access to the internet, especially if in a single cell. Single cell privileges would be revoked and belongings taken away. Most prisons have a library or computer centre that can be used at certain hours, especially for those studying. Prisoners are allowed access to certain sites for research and to submit assignments. It is becoming far more difficult to monitor, though, with cellphones and data being so accessible. Some time ago there was a drive to install cellphone blockers in prisons, but this was outvoted by the prison warders who complained that they wouldn’t be able to use their phones while at work.

Eric believes the picture of violence painted about prison is a myth perpetuated by exaggerated stories. “Now and then you see a fight. The gangsters take a sock filled with stones and rocks that they swing and beat you over the head with. I remember walking past a guy once and these okes came out from nowhere and attacked the guy. You just see blood splattering and flying everywhere. But when the warders catch these okes, they’re worse off than the one they beat up. I’ve seen warders break bones; and not one-on-one, sometimes six warders to one oke. They fuck you up so badly you look black and blue and you’re bleeding all over. They will come with a hosepipe with a piece of lead inside and pummel you.”

Eric offers a word of caution: “Some people arrive there thinking they’re under a unique set of circumstances. You’ve got to get that out of your head quickly because you’re just a number. Just like the other thirty thousand prisoners. So don’t believe you’re going to arrive there and be the top of the pile.”

Birds of a Feather

Eric dredges up memories from his first few days: “When you arrive in prison you immediately know who the gang members are; they intimidate you and try to get protection money from you. But once you give in, they will be at your cell every day looking for more protection money. The moment you say no, they will steal your things and intimidate you even more. I never paid anyone protection money. The day you do, you’re screwed.”

I asked Eric about making friends in prison: “The rule applies that you stick with your own kind but a lot of the time the whites in prison are really rubbish, scary people and you want to avoid them. Then you befriend black people and the other whites ostracise you because you’re now defending blacks.”

There’s no apparent hierarchy in terms of the crimes committed, though Eric admits that he may have had a certain status because of his particular crime and had, on some occasions, used this as an intimidation tool for his survival. “Most people think because you’re white, you’re in prison for fraud, or for being a con artist. I suppose I was seen differently to the other whites in that way.”

There is a community of gay men but they tend to adhere to the social rule of sticking together. “You also get okes pomping okes. That happens quite a lot, especially with the Nigerians. They’re married but they have their needs. They get youngsters to do the deed and they pay them for it. They’ll take the youngsters in and take care of them. You hear things like ‘don’t drop the soap or you’ll get raped’, but I never witnessed it or heard such things. This kind of sex is consensual and done for money.”

Vodaworld

When Eric first went to “Sun City”, he managed to smuggle in a cellphone. He had a girlfriend who met with a warder on a street corner around the back of the prison. She paid him R800 and the warder snuck the phone in for Eric.

During Eric’s first couple of years in prison he says cellphones were more the exception than the rule. Today there are more cellphones than you could imagine; so much so that prison is known as “Vodaworld”. If a prisoner is caught with a cellphone, it will be confiscated, but they’ll easily be able to smuggle a new one in the next day if they have the cash. Even the warders distribute cellphones. If a warder confiscates a smartphone from one of the prisoners, he will keep that phone and “sell” his old phone back to the prisoner.

Last year, there was an uproar after a Facebook page, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, was discovered. Inmates had been posting images of themselves in the prison precinct and cells.

Photo: IOL

Smuggled Goods

Money will get you almost anything, especially in prison. Even well-intended warders succumb to the seduction of easy cash from doing favours for prisoners. As Eric puts it: “Everyone has their price.”

Eric had a neighbour who would get a bottle of vodka every day. He paid a warder around R2000 per week to smuggle the vodka in Valpre bottles. This particular warder worked in the hospital section so he had access to water bottles. One weekend his neighbour shared some vodka with Eric. “Three fingers of vodka in some Coke. It went straight to my head! I hadn’t had a drop to drink in four years. Imagine that.” Eric seldom smuggled in contraband like cellphones or alcohol; his drug of choice was good food.

Having hard cash in prison is illegal, of course, but every prisoner has some. If a prisoner is caught with money, warders will confiscate and likely pocket it. The warders are meant to write this kind of infraction up, but most of the time they can’t be bothered so they simply pocket the free cash.

There’s a bustling marketplace in prison where you can find all sorts of goods. Young men who still have doting parents on the outside will get their folks to bring in fancy new sneakers — preferably well-known brands like Nike or Puma — and the shoes are on the market within an hour, selling for as little as R100. “This goes for anything: clothes, T-shirts, underwear. You can buy brand new clothes in prison for less than a quarter of the price in a store. If the seller is desperate you can pick up a really great pair of brand new sneakers for less than R200.”

Eric reckons 70% of the prisoners will do drugs, usually marijuana, but sometimes mandrax and even cocaine. Most of the drugs brought into the prison are brought in by the warders. Contrary to clothes and phones, drugs are far more expensive in prison than on the street. It’s your typical supply and demand chain and drugs are a premium commodity. It’s the drug addicts who are short on cash that prisoners are most weary of. They’re the ones who will steal anything to sell for drug money. As Eric says, “You even need someone to watch your washing; you hang up your T-shirts and underpants and before you can blink they’re stolen and back on the market.”

I spoke to Eric’s sister, Karen, about her experiences with smuggling goods into prison for Eric. Her eyes flitted around the room as she recalled Eric’s early prison days: “He [Eric] would give the warders our number to contact us and arrange a meeting to hand over the things he needed inside. At one stage we [Karen and her husband] would answer every phone number that came through because we never knew if might be connected to Eric.” With a hint of pain in her eyes, Karen went on: “He would borrow phones from the other inmates; but we would have to buy them airtime, and what was very scary for us is sometimes these guys would call us up and say ‘give me airtime or I’ll hurt your brother’. So we were being blackmailed by some of the other prisoners.”

Karen spoke of sending goods to Eric when he was in Sun City: “We would have to drive around the back of the prison to an abandoned parking lot to meet a warder; there was usually only one other car in the parking lot with tinted windows. There were cracks in the pavement and tufts of grass growing randomly through the tar and there was rubbish everywhere. We would wait for around thirty minutes for the warder to arrive; the whole time we were there I felt like I was going to be hijacked any minute. We really didn’t feel safe. Then the warder would arrive and we’d hand over the goods in a packet. We had to use a common packet, like a Checkers bag, and folded newspaper around all the things in the bag. Most of the time we’d hand over cigarettes, coffee, sweets and that kind of thing. We gave the warder a couple of hundred bucks to get the bag of goods to Eric. We never knew if Eric would get it or not. Every time was a risk and fraught with anxiety.”

With a slight smile, Karen continues: “When Eric was at Leeuwkop, Chilli Lane was right there, so we could buy the warders Nando’s and they would take a second meal to Eric in his cell.”

Now, adjusting her tone to a more serious note, Karen says: “We did a lot of favours for a lot of warders; gave them money, bought them lunch. After a few years of this, we learned the system; how to charm the warders and who to speak to, to get things to Eric.” Looking down, she admits: “We were totally involved in crime because we were bribing prison officials and complicit in smuggling things like food and vitamins into prison.” She shift her position, and making eye contact says: “But I can’t imagine anyone who has a loved one in prison who wouldn’t do the same.”

Authored by Skye Forrester.

END OF PART 1

Catch the Part 2 part of this story next week, where Eric reveals the reality behind visiting rights, prison uniforms, lockdown, medication, meals, the cost of incarceration and more.

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