'Boko' terror in jails
Allegations of murder, beatings, electrocutions and torture made against members of the prisons department's Emergency Support Team have earned the team the nickname "Boko Haram" among prisoners across the country.
Boko Haram is the murderous Islamic terrorist group that has destabilised much of Nigeria.
Members of the team have been implicated in the death of a Pretoria prisoner, and in assaulting and torturing 15 others.
Their four-year terror campaign at Pretoria's central prison, allegedly carried out with the complicity of top prison management, is now being investigated.
The assaults, and the death of murder convict Ricky Mokoena, 56, are among a string of allegations of beatings, electrocutions and torturing of scores of prisoners across South Africa linked to the Emergency Support Team, which, according to human-rights groups, have been covered up by prison officials.
In its 2014-2015 annual report, the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services slammed the department's inaction against team members, several of whose assaults on inmates bordered, it said, on "gross human rights violations".
Adding to concern about the allegations against the Emergency Support Team members is the seeming indifference of the Department of Correctional Services to the judicial inspectorate's recommendation that the team's operations be reviewed.
Lawyers for Human Rights yesterday launched an investigation into the abuse of prisoners at Pretoria's Kgosi Mampuru II prison, which date back to 2011. The organisation has also asked the police to investigate.
Central to the investigations is a letter written by prisoners at Kgosi Mampuru II.
The prisoners allege that Emergency Support Team members abuse prisoners in their cells while ostensibly searching for contraband.
Lawyers for Human Rights' Claire Ballard said assaults at the Pretoria prison had been occurring since 2011.
"They have, however, intensified over the past six months, with a series of mass beatings."
In an e-mail to the Pretoria police station commander, Ballard listed 15 prisoners who said they had been subjected to severe assaults and torture.
"We request that you investigate this as a matter of urgency."
She said Emergency Support Team members operated with impunity, with, it seemed, the sanction of prison management.
"Driving our demands for criminal investigation is the deliberate blocking by prison management of prisoners' requests for police assistance following the assaults.
"Perturbing is that witnesses to Mokoena's murder are being brutally assaulted for trying to speak out about the killing."
Ballard said what had happened at the Pretoria prison was typical of all South African prisons.
"We have been inundated with complaints against Emergency Support Team members.
"We want to see the officers involved in Kgosi Mampuru II assaults, and others, suspended and prosecuted. We want prison management held accountable."
Gwen Dereymaeker, of the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, said the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services had been reporting for years on the violence meted out by Emergency Support Team members in prisons across South Africa.
"There are control measures to mitigate the ways in which the team handles violent situations but they are ineffective."
She said that, although the team was established to quell violence, its members often abused their power.
"They are subjected to the same accountability mechanisms as ordinary warders but these are failing. The [prisons] department's failures to implement the inspectorate's calls for a review of the team's operations and procedures needs to be urgently addressed."
Correctional Services spokesman Manelisi Wolela said: "We have scheduled meetings with the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services aimed at taking the relationship to a higher level and do not conduct them through the media. When specific cases of alleged excesses in the execution of security operations [arise they] are treated as exceptions and are normally investigated and dealt with as and when they arise."
In its 2014-2015 annual report the inspectorate said the prisons department had failed to follow up on its 2013 recommendation that it review the operations of its Emergency Support Team.