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Pollsmoor Prison

Pollsmoor Prison, officially, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison is a prison in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was the most famous inmate of the prison. He describes in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, as "the truth of Oscar Wilde's haunting line about the tent of blue that prisoners call the sky." (p.343)

Pollsmoor is a maximum security prison with little means in the way of escape. Some of South Africa's most dangerous criminals and roughest gangsters are held in Pollsmoor Prison. The prison has a staff of 1 278 and the capacity to accommodate 4 336 offenders, but the current inmate population is over 7 000 (a figure which fluctuates daily).

Marlene Lehnberg, known as The Scissor Murderess also served her sentence in Pollsmoor but was paroled in 1986.

Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada , both anti-apartheid activists, were also incarcerated at Pollsmoor.

Alan Boesak also served his prison term here after he was convicted of fraud in 2000.

Structure of the Prison

Since it was established in 1964, the prison has been systematically expanded, so that Pollsmoor today comprises five prisons:

  • The Admission Centre serves a number of the courts in the Cape Peninsula (Cape Town, Mitchell's Plain, Somerset West and Wynberg).
  • Medium A Prison houses both awaiting trial and sentenced juveniles between the ages of 14 and 18.
  • Medium B Prison houses sentenced adult males.
  • Medium C Prison houses sentenced adult males on day-parole or soon-to-be-released males.
  • The Female Prison houses juvenile 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.

The Admission Centre

The Pollsmoor Admission Centre (formerly the Maximum Prison) is the largest of the five prisons making up the Pollsmoor Management Area. The vast majority of its approximately 3 200 inmates (almost half the total inmate population of Pollsmoor) are unsentenced awaiting-trial prisoners, or sentenced prisoners facing further charges. As an awaiting-trial prison (or remand centre) its population is constantly changing. On a daily basis, about 300 prisoners are booked out to appear in various courts around Cape Town. Some return as sentenced prisoners, others do not return at all, but large numbers come back to their cells to await a future court date, sometimes as distant as six months later.

The Pollsmoor Admission Centre receives prisoners sent to it by the courts. It is massively overcrowded, holding more than twice as many prisoners as it was designed for. By far the majority of prisoners live in communal bungalow cells, in which up to 40 prisoners sleep on double and triple bunks. Even the tiny single cells (of 2.5 by 2 metres) are occupied by one to three prisoners.

Gangsterism inside Pollsmoor

Gangsterism is a potent feature of Pollsmoor Prison life, and gangs are segregated into three separate sections on a single floor, accommodating a total of between 500 and 750. This segregation is in part an attempt to limit the gangs' ongoing recruitment of new members from amongst the recent arrivals. Because warders are present in the sections for less than two-thirds of the day, the gangs are enormously powerful in the communal cells. Gang rule involves extreme violence, including sexual violence.

The various gangs are called "The Numbers" (there are the 26's, the 27s and the 28s gangs) and are so powerful that they lock their members into the gang for life. They tattoo their ranks on their bodies, even their faces so that even outside prison their status is clear. Some members are so tied in to the gang culture that life outside is unthinkable, and would rather confess to a crime they didn't commit than be free men walking the streets.

The majority of prisoners are from depressed communities where there is large-scale unemployment, a lack of educational and other facilities, homelessness and gangsterism. As a predominantly awaiting-trial institution, there are few resources at Pollsmoor for prisoner programmes, other than visits by independent religious caregivers and non-governmental organizations. Inmates spend nearly all day in their overcrowded cells, and spend only one hour a day having outdoor exercise in enclosed courtyards. Little exercise occurs during this hour, since gang leaders utilize this time to communicate with prisoners in other cells, exchange drugs, mete out punishment to those in other cells etc. Any such that dare to exercise are being called to "attention" before a gang leader, and may face punishment. Drugs are commonly smuggled into cells, mainly from returning prisoners and corrupt prison wardens.

Pollsmoor in the Media

BBC Documentary

In 2001 Pollsmoor prison was the subject of a BBC documentary, where they focussed on two soon-to-be-released prisoners, Erefan Jacobs and Mogamat Benjamin (then leader of the "28" gang), and followed their adapting into civilian life again after their release.

Mikhael Subotzky Photographs inside Pollsmoor

On 27 April 2005 (Freedom Day in South Africa) photographer Mikhael Subotzky exhibited his panaromic photographs of the inside of the prison, at Pollsmoor prison. It was titled "'Die Vier Hoeke'" (The Four Corners) where the exhibition space echoed that which was being exhibited. Subotzky also commented on the meaning of this as well, where the viewers were part of the bureaucracy of getting into and eventually being locked into the maximum security prison.

This trend (of having art events inside prisons) was continued in November 2005 when a play was staged at another South African prison. When Herman Charles Bosman's Cold Stone Jug was staged at Zonderwater Prison in Cullinan, outside Pretoria, it was hailed as a world first. Never before had an audience gone to view a play, put on and acted in by prisoners, in a maximum security prison.

Ross Kemp

In the series Ross Kemp on Gangs, Pollsmoor prison was featured.

The Prisons Transformation Project

The Prisons Transformation Project is run by the University of Cape Town Centre for Conflict Resolution was inspired by the above mentioned BBC documentary, and attempts to raise self-awareness among prisoners in an attempt at rehabilitation. This includes humane treatment that restores dignity, educating them on alternatives to violence in resolving conflict and giving them birds and feral cats to care for.

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