Prison’s line of defence

Pollmoor’s crack SWAT team were not activated last week when five wardens were attacked by prisoners.

Visits were suspended over the long weekend following two separate incidents. Four wardens were assaulted when they tried to stop a prisoner from hitting another with a padlock in a communal cell on Sunday April 30. A fifth warden was attacked with a broomstick by a remand prisoner on Monday May 1.

Pollsmoor spokesperson Lewies Davids says the assaults are not unusual and not bad enough for the prison’s Emergency Support Team (EST) to be called in as wardens took control of the situation in both incidents.

Asked if the assaults are due to overcrowding, compromised safety and understaffing issues, he says they are presently sitting at 175 percent overcrowding. This is down from 277 percent in December 2016 when Judge Johann van der Merwe of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services visited Pollsmoor.

This was shortly after Cape High Court Judge Vincent Saldanha had declared conditions at Pollsmoor Prison’s remand centre unconstitutional.

Mr Davids says the prisoner who had assaulted another with a padlock sustained minor injuries and was treated in the prison’s hospital on the same day.

The five injured wardens were treated at the local hospital and were released that day. They opened separate assault cases with the police.

Preliminary investigations found both attacks to be related to a gang initiation ritual.

Gang-related crime in the prison is ongoing and the answer from the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) is the 25-member EST unit, of which three members are female.

On Tuesday May 9, the Bulletin joined a firearm training session at their base on the prison grounds. They were reluctant to be photographed, saying they regularly receive death threats and fear for their families safety. It is so bad that some have moved into the prison complex which is more secure.

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Head of the unit, Wongama Mbombo, says EST officers receive special weapons and techniques training (SWAT) in firearms, explosives and combat. If there is an uprising the unit goes in wearing bulletproof vests, helmets, armed with shock shields. They are not allowed to use weapons inside the prison or to hit prisoners.

Mr Mbombo says EST are used in cases of riots, prisoner escapes, to escort high risk prisoners to court or hospital, for VIP protection, fire drills andto conduct body searches for drugs, cellphones and weapons.

One of the officers told his story. Adam, not his real name, says one day will be etched into his mind, and body, forever. A chain of mishaps resulted in a devastating outcome.

Assigned with the task of escorting a prisoner to Groote Schuur Hospital, he and fellow officer Jack went to collect bulletproof vests. The EST office was locked and the two officers left without donning vests. Arriving at the remand detention centre they were shocked that the prisoner was already in the vehicle and routine security checks usually conducted by the EST were done in their absence. “On that day every point of getting the job done seemed to be wrong, from getting the escort vehicle fuelled for the trip, to power cuts in the management area,” says Adam.

The prisoner was shackled but not handcuffed. “I was told he had medical problems with his hands,” he says.

Arriving at the crowded hospital they were allocated number 486 on the patient waiting list and went in search of a secure area to wait. “In those brief seconds pandemonium broke loose. I looked into the eyes of a man pointing a weapon at us,” says Adam. “A bullet struck my arm, another hit my leg. It happened so quickly but I returned fire. My muscle memory and training joined forces as my body responded to the adrenaline rushing through my veins, also taking care not to hit bystanders,” says Adam.

Meanwhile Jack was lying nearby, motionless. “As the fleeing prisoner turned to face me I pulled the trigger. The bullet went through his chest and he fell to the ground. Another man took Jack’s firearm and aimed at me but I grabbed the fallen prisoner, using him as a shield. In the seconds it took to raise my firearm I realised the gunman wanted the prisoner alive. He ran away,” says Adam.

Doctors treated the officers, Adam keeping a tight grip on the prisoner until he was handcuffed. Adam says darkness covered him like a shroud when the doctor told him Jack was dead.

“I’m disappointed with the outcome of the investigation into the incident. I felt betrayed to learn that officials allowed the prisoner access to a public phone. In my assessment, that was how he contacted his people about his movement and location,” says Adam.

He has given service since 1986 and continues to be loyal to DCS. Adam should have been training DCS officials that day. He says firearm training is compulsory for every official annually, as well as the new firearm legislation which must be done every five years.

EST also react when prisoners escape such as when 15 were being escorted to court about two years ago and escaped at the nearby traffic lights in Tokai. He said working with security and police, they cordoned off the area and found 10 prisoners within about 90 minutes. The remaining five were found by the police.

Since it was established in 1964, the prison has been systematically expanded, so that Pollsmoor today comprises five sections, namely the admission centre, Medium A prison, which houses both awaiting trial and sentenced juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17, Medium B prison which houses sentenced adult males, Medium C prison, which houses sentenced adult males with sentences of up to a year, sentenced adult males on day-parole or soon-to-be-released males and the female prison, which houses juvenile (under 18) and adult women, both awaiting-trial and sentenced. There are also a number of infants under the age of 2 living in the female prison.