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Prison journalism: Challenges in South African Prisons

Dean Mashimbwe, a Zimbabwean migrant residing in Cape Town, was incarcerated at Pollsmoor Correctional Centre from 2016 until 2017.


Image via Unsplash

With overcrowding, poor sanitation, poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and a culture of toxic masculinity, South African prisons are environments conducive to both the transmission of HIV as well as its rapid progression to illness and even death.

Prison Life in South Africa: A Harsh Reality

Prison in South Africa is a completely different world on its own, with its own rules. You might come out of a good home – expect absolute hell – but do not fear it; it will also pass. Your world will be turned upside down, so try and foresee things that you are not used to.

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Survival Tactics for New Prisoners

The most important thing to remember if you are about to go to prison is act like a hardcore prisoner in order to fit in and adapt so quickly …it sounds strange, but gangsters can recognise so quickly if you are new in prison. Old gangsters don’t like to intimidate other old prisoners because they are old already; they want the new arrivals. They can realise quickly through your eyes if you are scared of them so you should look tough and strong and act like you are not scared of anything because they are going to take what you have if they want it. The moment gangsters are satisfied with what they get from you they make sure they recruit you. Be always alert and don’t trust anybody and be vigilant of who you call a friend, and it helps when you became friends with other old inmates who are non-gang members. 

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Negotiating Survival within the Cell

Cells are extremely overcrowded, and you are basically at the mercy of the gang-leader in the cell. The best thing to do is to wait it out a bit to make sure you identify who is “the boss” in the cell – there will be others running around “serving” him. Then approach cautiously and negotiate a deal; usually, if they leave you in peace, you’ll make sure they get some cigarettes (prison’s main “currency”). Obviously, this can only work if you have money and a friend outside who can bring in the cigarettes. This often gets smuggled in through one of the officers – again, it will take some time to detect which officer is open to bribes to bring this in for you – of course, also at a price. Your friend can also legally pay in a small amount of money in your name, and on certain days (for example, every Wednesday), you are allowed to go to the canteen to buy things – mostly candy or cigarettes are available.

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Navigating Gang Protocols for Safety

The gangs have strict protocols, and for your safety, you should align with them – without compromising your sanity or body. For example, when entering a cell already full of prisoners, you go and sit down just in front of the cell-door – even if you see an open bed or cell-bunk. Wait till you get INVITED to approach. Do not TAKE ANY GIFT from anybody – especially not in a crowded cell – it is often a test to see how “receptible” you are. They believe very much in a favour for a favour. So, if you GOT something for free (like a cigarette), it’s your turn to GIVE something for free. Rather do it the other way round – YOU give for free, and so if they take your gift, they will know they owe you (unless they have already robbed you of what you had – so hide what you have in very deep places, if you know what I mean).


I will make every effort to pull through. However, my feelings toward bed linger on. Nevertheless, to say, it has been some seasons that I am away from the lock-up, and my willpower is growing.

DISCLAIMER: Submission published as received

RESTORE is an NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa, providing inmates at Pollsmoor Prison with restorative justice opportunities.

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