Analysis: The troubled history of Mangaung prison

The high-security prison is in the spotlight again after the suicide of an inmate this week

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The Mangaung Correctional Centre was seen as a model prison when it opened in 2001. Archive photo: Becker Semela

The suicide of an inmate at Mangaung Correctional Centre has again put the spotlight on the high-security prison from which Thabo Bester escaped in 2022.

News24 reported that an inmate who was serving a life sentence for murder and robbery threw himself from a building on Monday morning. He had served ten years of his sentence.

The prison, managed by multinational security company G4S, has faced heavy scrutiny in recent months after the revelations of the escape of convicted rapist Thabo Bester in 2022. The Department of Correctional Services has moved to end the contract with Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts (BCC), the private company that operates the prison, and in which G4S has a 20% stake.

The prison, which started operating in 2001, was at first seen as a model prison. Representatives of BCC were eager to make submissions to Parliament and speak in the media on the prison’s modern infrastructure, state-of-the-art security systems, and recreational and rehabilitative facilities.

But soon BCC faced challenges managing gangsterism and hunger strikes inside the prison. In 2008, the Wits Justice Project started reporting on allegations of abuse and mistreatment of inmates and in 2013, after a series of riots by inmates and a wildcat strike by employees, the Department placed the prison under administration. Control was restored to the prison ten months later.

According to a 2023 presentation by the Department of Correctional Services in Parliament, there is ongoing litigation related to the period that the prison was under administration, in which the Department wants to recover R110-million.

Also in 2013, the Department of Correctional Services investigated allegations of unauthorised use of force in the prison and that prison management had breached the Correctional Services Act on several occasions. The Department had found instances in which inmates were forcibly injected with antipsychotics in a manner that was not aligned with the Mental Health Act.

After litigation by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Department finally, seven years later, released a redacted investigation report in 2020.

The report revealed that BCC had challenged each of the Department’s findings, providing evidence that prison management was not in the wrong and that, in some instances, the Department’s own controller was at fault. Nothing further came of that investigation.

Between 2017 and April 2023, G4S reported almost 5,000 security incidents at Mangaung Prison to the Department of Correctional Services. Among them were injuries, gang fights, assaults between inmates, assaults on officials, inmates being beaten, natural deaths, unnatural deaths, attempted suicides, and hunger strikes.

In May 2022, Thabo Bester escaped from Mangaung prison, spending at least R150,000 on bribes to prison officials and faking his death by smuggling a corpse into his cell and lighting it on fire.

When the escape was revealed in March 2023, the Department again placed the prison under administration, and in May 2023 moved to end the contract with BCC. Mediation between BCC and the Department is continuing and may end in litigation.

G4S’s international track-record

Although it is owned by Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts, the prison is branded under G4S. The G4S logo is on signs at the gate to the prison and prison wardens wear G4S uniforms.

Globally, G4S has 850,000 employees and operations in 85 countries, according to its website. In South Africa, G4S employs 15,000 people and offers private manned security services as well as cash-in-transit services. Its Care and Justice Department runs Mangaung prison.

Internationally, G4S’s private prison operations have a sketchy track record. In 2016, G4S sold its youth detention business in the UK after the BBC broadcast footage of young inmates being abused by G4S staff. At another G4S prison in the UK, the government terminated a contract because prisoners had taken control of the prison.

In recent years, pension funds in Norway and the United States have sold their shares in G4S. The Norwegian government pension fund manager said there was an ‘unacceptable risk’ that G4S was responsible for ‘serious or systematic human-rights violations’.

Why do we have private prisons?

In the 1990s, the Department of Correctional Services approached the National Treasury for money to build more prisons. Prisons were overcrowded and more beds were needed, fast.

The Treasury suggested that the Department enter into public-private partnerships to build two private prisons. The prisons would be funded and built by private companies and operated by them for 25 years. During that time, the Department would pay back the construction costs and a monthly fee for the management of the prisons.

The private companies were thought to possess expertise and skill that would breath fresh air into the country’s correctional system. At the end of the 25-year contract, the prisons were to be handed over to the department.

After what the department has called a “competitive bidding process”, the concession contract to build Mangaung Correctional Centre was awarded to BCC in 2000. The prison is a maximum security prison, with inmates serving long sentences who are at a high risk of trying to escape or harm others.

BCC has five key shareholders, each with an equal share: G4S, Old Mutual and three empowerment partners; Fikile Mangaung, Ten Alliance Mangaung and Ikhwezi Community Trust. But there are smaller shareholders too and full information about the share ownership is unavailable. Information about BCC’s operations and accounts, and about the workings of the prison, is also not made public (see Mystery surrounds black empowerment gains from G4S prison contract).

Rare glimpses into the prison’s inner workings have been provided by presentations to Parliament by BCC and the few documents and investigation reports that are in the public domain. But most of what happens inside the walls of the prison is kept secret by national legislation and by confidentiality clauses in the concession contract with BCC, on which so far the government has spent R8-billion.

Citing these confidentiality clauses, G4S and BCC have refused to substantively answer GroundUp’s queries since the start of our reporting on Thabo Bester.

TOPICS:  Prisons Thabo Bester prison escape

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