“The sexual assault of detainees, whether committed by corrections staff or by inmates, is a crime and is recognised internationally as a form of torture.” – Just Detention International

“The first time you go to jail, there are gangsters there. The Big Five, the 28s, the 26s, the Airforce. If you do not have a number, you are not a gangster, they take you. If you have money, they take it. If you have clothes, they take it. You sleep on the floor. They give you a blanket and you sleep on the floor. Then they sodomise you. If you do not want it, they assault you,” he says with a quiet, submissive lisp.

“They take you and sodomise you. When the lights are on, or off, when you go to the shower, anytime, when you sleep. Maybe one sodomises you today, another one tomorrow, the gang boss and the boys who work for that boss. They must sodomise. But if you take their number they don’t. You take the number and you go and commit this to other people.”

Thapelo*, now 46, spent four-and-a-half years dealing with a constant fear of violence and sexual assault while he was behind the walls of Pretoria Local prison. He describes in niggling detail what happens when that fear turns to reality, lowering his head and showing two deep scars on the back of his head. Fashioning a makeshift mace using little more than a leather belt and a metal, prison-issue cup that had been sharpened around the edges, gang members assaulted Thapelo as punishment for what they considered a serious offence.

“I did not take the number for three years,” he says, rolling up a sleeve to reveal a faint black smudge, the number 26. “They give it to me here and I rubbed it [out]. Then they assault me. Then I am no longer a member of the gangsters. I was asleep in the hospital of the jail for three months after they stitched me up.”

Spending three months in a coma for refusing to become a gang member may sound like harsh judgment, to those on the outside, yet in all probability Thapelo’s time in the hospital was welcomed, as it was certainly the most peaceful throughout his incarceration.

When asleep, Thapelo’s fear ended, albeit momentarily. The beatings, the tricks and tests, the dehumanisation and the sexual assault, were all gone. For a brief period, he could rest. He was free.

Dynamics of Rape
For most of us it is not news that sex, rape and manipulation take place in our prison system. However, it remains a topic that is generally avoided or, if anything, glanced over. Mostly because we do not understand the dynamics or it makes us uncomfortable. However, sexual assault and rape in South African prisons is as complicated as any other human relationship. There exist strict identities and roles and boundaries and freedoms. The male rape that occurs behind bars has nothing to do with homosexuality. The same-sex sexual violence involved is a consequence of the need to establish an identity and a position in a hierarchy within a world where the freedom to express oneself is severely limited.

“Sexual violence is utterly power-defined,” emphasises Sasha Gear, a former researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and presently the Programme Director for the South African branch of Just Detention International, a human rights organisation seeking to end all forms of abuse in detention facilities. “The person doing the raping, he’s doing the penetrating, and that’s very important for the identity that goes with it, the identity of being a ‘man,’ so the rapist, or perpetrator is seen as having a very masculine identity whereas the person he is doing it to is seen as having a very feminine identity.”

It is safe to say that there exists a desire to pull elements of the outside world into the prison in a way that recreates that very same and “normal” society. The more material goods you own, the more money you have, the more luxuries you can acquire (i.e. drugs) and the more assertive and aggressive you are, the more respect you command. However, as the resources are so limited, what results is a highly exaggerated version of society. The aspect that we most confuse and shy away from is sex.

The gang culture within prisons enforces “marriages” among inmates of different positions within the hierarchy, and this reportedly forms the most common setting for male-on-male sex to occur. Weaker and more dependant inmates are taken as wives, or wyfies, by the more aggressive and usually older gang members. What transpires is an unofficial, usually forced marriage between two men, where the wyfie takes on the subordinate and feminine role. He becomes seen as she. The inmate has become, de facto, a woman
as far as the other inmates are concerned. He is seen as a woman by all and is expected to perform all the functions that patriarchal society demands of women, including being used for sex.

“When you come to jail and you say, ‘I am not a wyfie,’ they say you are talking shit,” explains Thapelo. “Then they hit you and they sodomise you. They have marriages. They take you as a slave and you must make tea for them. Then they take you and they take icing sugar and red [sherbet] and they put it on your lips like lipstick. And then they say that man is married to another man. That man is then his wife, he belongs to him. And they poison you if you cause shit. They make you a slave, you wash clothes for them, and you wash blankets for them. You are a woman. You do the jobs of a woman.”

Here is where the gender lines are blurred and the confusion of these relationships as being homosexual arises. As peculiar as it may sound the truth is that those gang members who establish a masculine identity in prison do not see themselves as homosexual. Homosexual or transgendered inmates are, in fact, often targeted. They do not regard those taken as wives as men, but as women. Thapelo goes so far as to dismiss the notion that there are gay men in prison at all. It is important to distinguish between the sexual act and sexuality itself, because the qualities which define a “woman” in prison are very similar to those that are usually used to define the expectations of a woman on the outside.

“One of the features of the sexual violence that happens in prison is that it is ongoing, it is not a once-off rape. What often happens is that someone is tricked into an initial exchange. And then it is clearly rape,” says Gear. She gives the example of a first-time inmate who is offered a cigarette. This might not seem unusual but should he accept he might unknowingly enter into a transaction. Later the very same prisoner who offered the cigarette could demand sex. “It’s seen as your masculinity being tested,” she adds. “If you’re a ‘real man’ you will not fall for this because dependency and vulnerability are associated with ‘womanhood.’ So there’s a really misogynistic, strict gender regime and people are tested to see which side they are on.”

“One of the profound senses you get from prison culture is that you can never relax; you are always being tested. Even if you’re alright for a while, you can put a foot out at some other point and then be stomped on. It’s a really brutal competition for power.”

“It was all mixed up. C Section was all awaiting-trial prisoners and that constituted the biggest part of the prison. Within Local prison, you would get the maximum side as well, where your very violent prisoners get locked up. But at some stage, like at the eating halls where you have to feed 11,000 prisoners, they are bound to interact,” says Corné Nel, a former warden at the very same prison Thapelo found himself locked up in. “My advice is if you ever get locked up in Local prison, hit the prison warder as hard as you can, then at least they might classify you as a violent criminal and lock you up in the single cells,” he adds with a sincere, yet cheeky smile.

Nel’s words of advice are seemingly straightforward, but are in fact only hopeful. They would only encourage the vicious cycle of violence within prison culture. Assaulting a warden may sound like a fix but it only adds to the corruption of the inmate himself, not to mention extending his prison sentence automatically by three months. Neither does the old American movie tale of “find the biggest, toughest guy on the block and beat him up to show them you mean business” promise a safe stay. Terms like “victim” and “perpetrator” are blurred in prison. An inmate may start off as a non-violent criminal but in order to survive he may assault someone, join a gang, become violent and even commit rape himself. As Thapelo says, “You take the number and go commit this to others.”

“You cannot put the responsibility to protect themselves completely on the inmates,” argues Gear. “Not accepting cigarettes for fear of rape, expecting a first-time inmate to stand up against 50 hardened prisoners in one cell, or reporting abuse when the risks associated with it often make this distinctly unwise.”

Rape is seriously underreported and no reliable statistics are available. The issue lies with improper administration and intimidation. Currently, the protocol for grievances is for a prison official to stop at the cells in the morning and ask if anyone has any complaints. It would take a brave soul to report abuse when his abusers are standing next to him. Furthermore, if a rape victim’s attackers, or the gang itself, do not want a report filed then chances are good that they will see to it that it does not happen, either through intimidation or bribery.

“The gang that’s closest to the prison warders is the gang that runs the prison, or will be the gang that’s most in charge. And that’s the main thing; a prison warden makes R1,800 a month. Just by helping the gangsters selling dagga, a warden can make triple that, taking bribes,” says Nel. “There are systems for grievance, but a system is only as good as the administration of that system.”

Thapelo tested that system more than once: “When you tell anyone or want to complain, if you complain to the Department [of Correctional Services] they tell you, ‘Ja, we will make it so that it is right in jail. We will come, maybe next week, to see what’s wrong.’ They never come. They just want you to go away from them. They tell you, ‘You are a prisoner, you can’t change.’ When you complain, they tell you that is not their job. You can’t do anything. And then you go back to the cells. And when you are suffering if you go to the cells and tell the other prisoners you are suffering they tell you to go to sleep. They say, ‘You came to prisons because of your corruption outside and you must stay for your sins. You are a man, you must stay for your sins.’”

Changing Perceptions
The administration of South African prisons lacks the insight needed when dealing with victims of rape and abuse. Poor training and perceptions of prisoners as “deserving of their situation” are the true culprits of this crime. A positive attitude towards training, understanding of the psychological impact of not only sexual abuse but the constant fear surrounding life in prison, as well as the notions of loneliness and helplessness, need to be addressed. This can only be done with a change in perception from the top and from the outside as well. Currently, the Department of Correctional Services files all reports of sexual assault and rape as “General Assault.” This clearly demonstrates the nonchalance we have for what is essentially a human rights violation.

The issue of prison rape has received some attention in the media over the last year, albeit not for the right reasons. Firstly, the defence team in Shrien Dewani’s extradition case was strongly critical of our notoriously overcrowded and violent prison system. There have been even reported cases that inmates were aware of Dewani’s case and were “waiting” for him. Should Dewani’s counsel succeed, the notion that there is a possibility that not all of those responsible for Anni Dewani’s murder will be brought to justice, because of the state of our prisons, is unacceptable.

Secondly, in December 2010 Brandhouse’s Drive Dry campaign nobly attempted to change consumers’ attitude towards drunk driving by airing a commercial showing inmates who are recording personalised messages for what appears to be a dating service. “These hands will never let you go,” says one. “Papa wag vir jou,” says another. Even though Brandhouse’s actions were bone fide, their attempts to shock consumers out of drinking and driving for fear of being raped in prison drew criticism for failing to address the issue or changing the “don’t drop the soap” perception we have of prison rape. The ad not only uses the victims of prison-based sexual assault but also leads viewers to believe that rape is part of the sentence.

“It’s that uncomfortable, nervous laughter and it’s offensive because of its insensitivity to inmates already in our prisons facing real danger,” Gear says about the use of humour in the ad. Accepting that rape is part of the sentence only encourages the practice and furthers it from reform. Because only through the reform of the way we view prisoners can there be any kind of reform in prison. As it stands currently, efforts at reform and rehabilitation are few and far between. And that is not an issue that should be laughed at, let alone exploited.

Thapelo was in prison for a non-violent crime. He entered prison a middle-aged man for forging cheques. He spent 18 months in prison awaiting trial and another three years as part of his sentence. He was assaulted, manipulated and raped on countless occasions. In an attempt to survive he joined a gang. Under the 26s he was forced to smuggle drugs and assault others. When he renounced the gang, he was betrayed and beaten into a coma. He left prison with a scarred body, a scarred mind, looking 20 years older than he really is. “You suffer,” he says, “and you suffer for yourself.”

“There is no rehabilitation. None.” says Nel. “You will come out there the worst possible person you could become. You need to fight off guys who want to fuck you every night. You need to become part of the drug trade just to survive. You need to become part of a gang. You could be in for a non-violent crime and you could come out a serial rapist, a drug dealer and, maybe even a killer. So when you say ‘violation of rights’… it does not even come close to describing the inhumanity. ‘Violation of rights’… you can’t even use that term. It doesn’t give merit to what happens to you in prison. ‘Violation of rights’ is nowhere near an accurate description of what goes on in there. ‘Violation of rights’ would be a sissy term. ‘Violation of rights’ is definitely not the right term… the minute four o’clock comes and you lock that door and walk away, ‘violation of rights’ just does not cut it.”
* Thapelo is not his real name.

By Luka Vracar
Published in Playboy South Africa August 2011