Inmates at Johannesburg's "Sun City" prison say officials have stonewalled their attempts to open a fraud case against staff members for cheating them out of profits from the prison canteens.
They accuse the staff of profiteering at the expense of inmates and also of withholding profits from canteen sales supposed to go to the prisoners' sport and recreational facilities.
Sun City prison has two canteens, one for staff and one for the nearly 3,000 inmates. Till slips from the two canteens appear to show that inmates are being charged 20% more than staff for the same items. Inmates say this is in contravention of Section 118 of the Correctional Services Act which prohibits any staff member deriving "any benefit or advantage from the sale or supply of any article to or for the use of any offender or correctional centre."
Long-standing prison policy is to add a 5% mark-up on items sold at the inmates' canteen, with this 5% profit going to sports and recreation. This is in addition to the 5% of total profits inmates are supposed to receive from the staff canteen.
However, it emerged in a recent South Gauteng High Court case that prisoners had not received any share of profits from the canteen since 2011.
Deputy chairperson of the inmates' Participative Management Committee (PMC) at the prison, Lucas Mokholo, says a complaint was registered with the prison's complaints official, and a request made to open a case of fraud against staff members for unlawfully profiting from goods sold through the inmates' canteen. He says the complaint was met with silence from prison officials. The request to open a fraud case with SAPS has likewise been stonewalled, despite promises of assistance from prison officials.
In January this year Sun City inmates brought an action against prison officials in the South Gauteng High Court after it emerged that prisoners were going up to 20 hours between meals because of a shortage of manpower, the result of a labour dispute.
Prisoners were being fed both lunch and supper at 1pm each day, and had to wait till 8am the next morning for their next meal. Judge SM Wentzel handed down judgment in June with an order compelling prison officials to space meals throughout the day and serve "a hot meal of meat and vegetables in the evening to sustain them until breakfast the following mornings... ".
Earlier this month, the prison complied with the requirement to space meals throughout the day, but inmates say it is still not meeting the requirement to provide a hot evening meal of meat and vegetables. The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) was further required to report back to the court within 60 days proving that it had given effect to the court order. The DCS says it filed its status report with the court on 10 September. Prison inmates say they will file their response this week.
When asked to comment on these claims, the Department replied that it was never ordered to serve a hot meal in the evening as alleged. "In terms of the court order, the department was ordered that the interval between the last meal of the previous day and breakfast the next day should not exceed 14 hours. This order has since been implemented effective from 6 September 2018. Meals are now spaced accordingly as per the court order."
Yet Judge Wentzel in paragraph 73 of her judgment made specific mention of the need for prisoners to be served a hot evening meal of meat and vegetables. Mokholo says the prisoners will be pointing this out to the judge in their response to the prison's status report, and may have to ask for a further specific order compelling the prison to serve a hot evening meal. One inmate told GroundUp the evening meal consists of five slices of bread and a sachet of juice concentrate.
Responding to prisoners' complaints about over-charging in the prison canteen and then failing to hand over 5% of the profits, the Department replied: "As the Court ordered, all reports related to financial proceeds received from all trading points starting from 2011 until 2017 have been shared with the Participative Management Committee (PMC) which represents inmates on this matter. The department is not aware of any fraud allegations or letter requesting to open a case with SAPS against correctional officials."
"There is no directive in the court order which requires the department to reduce prices and also not to make profits out of sales at trading points. Trading points within and around correctional centres are established in terms of Section 132 of the Correctional Services Act 111 of 1998 and the Correctional Services regulation 63."
The court also ordered the DCS to provide a full reckoning of profits from canteen sales going back to 2011. Mokholo says there is no way to verify the authenticity of the information subsequently provided by prison officials, and a request will be made to the court to provide a forensic audit of the canteen accounts.
Here is the full response from the DCS to questions from GroundUp:
As indicated previously, we acknowledge and welcome the court order handed down by the South Gauteng High Court to ensure that meals are properly spaced throughout the day. It is our responsibility as the department to ensure that inmates are kept in a healthy, safe and secure environment.
The department was never ordered to serve a hot meal in the evening as alleged. In terms of the Court Order, the department was ordered that the interval between the last meal of the previous day and breakfast the next day should not exceed fourteen (14) hours. This Order has since been implemented effective from 06 September 2018. Meals are now spaced accordingly as per the Court Order.
As the Court ordered, all reports related to financial proceeds received from all trading points starting from 2011 until 2017 have been shared with the Participative Management Committee (PMC) which represents inmates on this matter. The department is not aware of any fraud allegations or letter requesting to open a case with the SAPS against correctional officials.
There is no directive in the Court Order which requires the department to reduce prices and also not to make profits out of sales at trading points. Trading points within and around correctional centres are established in terms of Section 132 of the Correctional Services Act 111 of 1998 and the Correctional Services regulation 63.
A status report signifying the steps taken to ensure implementation of the Court Order was filed on 10 September 2018 with the High Court. The department was ordered to do so within 60 days of the Court Order.
The Department of Correctional Services will continue to find ways and come up with more strategies to manage and reduce challenges brought by overcrowding and understaffing. The safety and health of the inmates will always be ensured through the provision of a safe and secure environment.