Extract from Ruth Hopkins’ book, The Misery Merchants: Life and Death in a Private South African Prison

Ruth Hopkins’ book, The Misery Merchants: Life and Death in a Private South African Prison, tells the shocking story of Mangaung Prison. Ruth Hopkins’s brave and extraordinary book, The Misery Merchants: Life and Death in a Private South African Prison is an exposé of Mangaung Prison, a privatised prison, run by G4S, the largest security firm in the world. Hopkins’s story of a broken prison, in which prisoners were forcibly given anti-psychotic drugs and tortured with electric shock ‘therapy’, also details the flow of money in and out of the prison, the links with MPs, and the shocking ‘governance’ of the prison by G4S. An extract has been republished below with permission from the publishers.


How a prison term becomes a debt to society that cannot be repaid

Keeping it tight: The Department of Correctional Services

On 8 October 2013, following G4S’s attempt to replace the 331 dismissed guards at the prison, Nontsikelelo Jolingana, acting DCS national commissioner, writes in a press statement that there is ‘a worrying deterioration of safety and security’ at the centre. ‘The contractor has lost effective control of the facility,’ Jolingana argues. ‘The contractor continues to use uncertified staff to perform custodial duties.’

In terms of the Correctional Services Act, it is unlawful to employ uncertified staff in prisons. Invoking section 112 of the Act, which provides a legal basis for the state to take over a private prison if the contractor has lost control, the DCS sends 246 officials to Bloemfontein to restore order and security at Mangaung. At first, the team is led by Zach Modise, Free State DCS commissioner, who is appointed as temporary prison head. G4S workers are to remain at the prison, to run the food and educational programmes.

Two weeks later, the Mail & Guardian152 and the British Guardian153 run my article on the investigation. At roughly the same time, the BBC154 and Carte Blanche155 both broadcast shows based on my investigation. After the exposé, my phone rings non-stop with enquiries from international news networks and media from all corners of the world wishing to cover the stories of the abuse of imprisoned men at the hands of one of the biggest companies on earth. Video footage of Bheki Dlamini shouting ‘No! I am not a donkey!’ travels the world during this brief but intense media coverage.

While all of this is still in full swing, S’bu Ndebele, the minister of correctional services, tells parliament, on 5 November 2013, that the privatisation of prisons has ‘failed’. He explains that government entered into a public-private partnership to construct, maintain and manage the Mangaung facility in 2000 and that this partnership ‘experiment seems to be showing that the desired results are not being realised’.

Minister Ndebele instructs a DCS task team to investigate allegations of abuse at the prison and compile a report. Ndebele’s astute assessment of the situation comes as a surprise; never before had I heard a Correctional Services minister or official stating anything this unequivocal and damning.

Ndebele tells parliament: ‘The Department would strive to ensure compliance in terms of the law and the concession contract between the DCS and the Bloemfontein Corrections Consortium.’157 A meeting was to take place, he announced, on 12 November. My sources have alleged that the shareholders are ‘summoned’ to this meeting, which allegedly takes place at President Jacob Zuma’s homestead near Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal not long after Ndebele’s address to parliament.

It’s not clear if this meeting took place or what was discussed, but afterwards, the pieces on the chessboard are rearranged. Minister Ndebele is replaced by Michael Masutha and national commissioner Jolingana by Zacharia Modise, who moves into this position five months after being appointed head of prison at Mangaung.

Minister Masutha is full of praise for the ‘state-of-the-art’ prison when he later visits the facility. Following Minister Ndebele’s address, I expect the DCS to take a hard line. But that doesn’t happen. I’m told that, by early 2014, the task team has collected a ‘bakkiefull of evidence’ on the abuse at Mangaung. A law firm is appointed to write the report.

In June 2014, a draft ‘preliminary investigation findings report’ is leaked to me. It is a document drawn up by the lawyers. It includes the findings of the DCS task team and BCC’s responses to the allegations. DCS flagged evidence of unauthorised use of force, unlawful segregation of prisoners, unnecessary use of violence, suspicious deaths and forced injections with antipsychotic drugs, mostly reaffirming the findings in my investigation. BCC’s response contains explanations for the medication, the force and various other issues. It mostly denies any responsibility.

In the same month, G4S’s (international) Director of Investor Relations, Helen Parris, reassures potential investors,159 that it had ‘been informally told that the DCS investigation found no evidence to support the allegations in the media’ and that the company ‘had been cleared’. The statement also includes a blatant lie: ‘we put in place a number of short-term plans which included requesting support from the Department of Correctional Services,’ Parris writes. The ‘requested support’ was not that at all: DCS invoked section 112 of the Correctional Services Act. The letter to investors goes on to deny any wrongdoings.

I also received a leaked email, sent around the same time by Pappie Mokoena, the chair of Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts (BCC), to the other four BCC shareholders. In the email Mokoena explains that Zach Modise has promised the prison will soon be returned to BCC. Mokoena writes that Modise made the promise in a phone call to him earlier that month, mere days before the DCS sends BCC the preliminary report detailing abuse at Mangaung on G4S’s watch, the report that is never finalised.

In other words, Modise assured BCC shareholders that Mangaung prison would be returned to them, despite the investigation into abuse and corruption at Mangaung prison not having been finalised. After the prison has been returned to G4S and BCC in August 2014, the investigation stalls indefinitely. The ‘bakkie-full’ of evidence goes ‘missing’. The preliminary report is never finalised, and nothing ever gets to parliament, as Minister Ndebele promised. In 2014, lawyers from Wits’ Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) request access through the courts to the preliminary and final report under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), but the DCS – and G4S, which applies to be a co-defendant in the matter – continues, to this day, to obstruct the release of the report.

Nearly six years later, on 7 February 2020, the High Court in Pretoria finally renders judgment on the case. Judge Pierre Rabie instructs the department to release the unredacted report within 15 days. At the time of writing, the Department of Correctional Services had not yet responded to the judgment.