Port Elizabeth – The prisoners who attacked several guards at the St Albans Prison in Nelson Mandela Bay are considered the “worst of the worst” offenders.
During a media briefing at the correctional facility on Tuesday, Deputy Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Thabang Makwetla said the fight had broken out around 10:00 on Monday morning, when 33 prisoners started attacking guards in the dining hall at the end of the morning meal shift.
Makwetla said the inmates had been armed with sharp objects and self-made knives. He said, during the fight, 13 officials were injured, six of them critically. Three prisoners lost their lives: One dying at the prison clinic, while the other two died from their injuries after being transferred to Livingstone Hospital.
He said the names of the deceased would only be released after next of kin had been informed, and said that officials from DCS had been dispatched to inform the relevant families.
Makwetla said those involved in the fight were from cells 22 and 23 in the Maximum B ward.
He said these cells, which housed eight inmates and 25 inmates respectively, were reserved for the most difficult offenders in the maximum detention facility.
He said the Maximum B facility had a total of 674 inmates in 23 cells, and that the prisoners in cells 1 through 21 had already been to the dining area, had eaten, and had returned to their cells before the attack happened.
Makwetla said there had been a grievance raised by the inmates in these cells relating to certain privileges that had been withheld. He said the complaints had been dealt with, but there had been simmering tension building in the cells.
Department of Correctional Services National Commissioner Zach Modise said one of the biggest challenges facing St Albans was gangsterism, with the numbers gangs – the 26s, 27s and 28s – being well represented.
He said there were particular days of the year, such as December 26, where it was common for gangsters in prison to attack officials.
Overcrowded and understaffed
Modise confirmed that the prison was currently understaffed and that this was aggravated by the public holidays and long weekend, which meant that a number of staff members were off on leave or had the weekend off.
He also pointed out that the facility, which is designed to hold a maximum of 4 000 prisoners, currently had 4 387 convicted criminals, excluding the awaiting trial prisoners.
When questioned about how prisoners had been able to get sharp objects into the common area, Modise said this had been a serious breach, and that investigations were already underway.
Makwetla said a formal internal departmental query had been launched, and that the police were in the process of conducting their own, independent investigation.
He also said the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services had been informed of the incident and had also confirmed that they would also be dealing with the case.
Modise and Makwetla both commended the correctional services officials who had been released from hospital after being treated and who had reported for duty on Tuesday morning. They also expressed their condolences and sympathies to the families of the deceased.
The Maximum B section currently remains under lockdown, while the rest of the facility has reopened for visitors.