South Africa: investigating prison for profit
Violence has deep roots in South Africa, going back to colonial conquest and the apartheid state. Which is why those who end up in prison receive very little sympathy, and even less coverage in the national press.
Violence has deep roots in South Africa, going back to colonial conquest and the apartheid state, which ruled by the gun and the whip. Its citizens continue to live in fear of violent crime at home and on the streets. Which is why the perpetrators of crime in the country — and particularly those who end up in prison — receive very little sympathy, and even less coverage in the national press.
But that’s exactly where journalist Ruth Hopkins has spent her last decade. Hopkins delved into the violence visited upon inmates, including the bureaucratic indifference they are subjected to by institutions falling under — in an Orwellian twist — the Department of Correctional Services. Very little about prison life in South Africa involves correction.
At the center of Hopkins’ work is the prison-industrial complex in South Africa, which crystallizes in the operations of British multinational G4S, the world’s largest private security contractor. The result of years of investigation, her recently-launched book “The Misery Merchants,” is also the subject of an award-winning Dutch documentary film “Prison for Profit,” produced by IFProductions and Java Films.
In South Africa, G4S is one of the country’s biggest private employers with some 15,000 people on its payroll. But the company works in about 90 countries and employs at least 570,000 people worldwide, running private prisons in South Africa, as well as the UK, and Australia, and semi-private facilities elsewhere, including the US and Palestinian territories. In 2019, its revenue hit £7.7 billion ($10.7 billion).
Reports of the company’s questionable dealings in private security and incarceration have been widely reported around the world. In 2012, the group was charged with the mismanagement of security for that year’s London Olympics. In 2015, a grand jury report detailed a string of criticisms in a Florida juvenile detention facility in the US, including “dilapidated buildings, unclean sanitary facilities, and undertrained and poorly equipped staff.” In 2019, the company announced its exit from the UK’s immigration and asylum sector following a 2017 undercover BBC video of a man being choked and verbally abused at one of its centers. That same year, a USA Today report found that G4’s US subsidiaries had hired or retained at least 300 employees with questionable records, including criminal convictions. And just a few weeks ago the Guardian reported that migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates were “forced to pay illegal fees” for jobs with the company.
Hopkins, who was born in England, worked as investigative reporter with the Wits Justice Project (WJP), which focuses on criminal justice system reform, and is based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. It was there that her work on G4S began.
At the time, she was inundated with letters from prisoners across South Africa complaining about abuse and torture. But one prison in particular continually stood out: the Mangaung Correctional Center (MCC), the country’s largest prison and the second largest private maximum-security prison in the world. Designed to accommodate up to 3,000 prisoners, the prison is in the Free State, a poor province with an unemployment rate of 41.2%, according to Statistics South Africa.
For a long time, the premier of this province was the secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), who currently faces corruption charges.
Hopkins worked for eight years to uncover the goings on at the prison. She found a place that was unsafe for both prisoners and guards; where disputes among rival gangs often ended in death. MCC is run by G4S as part of a consortium with so-called “Black empowerment” partners. (In South Africa, private firms wishing to do business with the South African government need to ensure that state contracts include a percentage for Black businesspeople.)
Over the years, Hopkins interviewed close to 100 inmates and 30 guards, and spoke to multiple sources from G4S as well as corrections officials. She confirmed the stories she was being told through leaked emails and contracts, video footage, eyewitness accounts, photos, and affidavits. One key piece of video footage was leaked to her by a prison guard horrified by what was taking place inside the prison.
This material painted a picture of abuse where prisoners are routinely assaulted by staff and subjected to electric shocks, forced to take anti-psychotic drugs, and are kept in dark isolation cells with no ventilation.