Nongoloza's Children: W. Cape Prison Gangs
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Nongoloza's Children: Western Cape prison gangs during and after apartheid
by Johnny Steinberg
Chapter 5: Warders and gangs
In October 2002, when the Minister of Correctional Services came to Pollsmoor—the day Rashid was supposed to stab a fellow inmate—he gave a 45-minute speech, a few sentences of which were devoted to prison gangs. "You are here because you have done terrible things to people on the outside," he told the inmates in the audience. "Don't do terrible things to people on the inside. Don't rape people here. The gangs are unacceptable and must go."
Four years earlier, the Department of Correctional Services had given a presentation on gangs to Parliament's Correctional Services Portfolio Committee. There, the department had candidly stated that its "efforts in combating gangsterism can restrict their influence but can never eliminate the problem". The department also acknowledged that in many prisons, its staff had ceded spheres of control to the gangs, that warders who sought to close down gang space in prison were likely to be victimised. "Personnel are often intimidated by the gangs in order to get the opportunity to promote gangsterism," the department informed the portfolio committee. "Members [of the department] are eventually assaulted if it is noticed that they are the obstacles in [gangs'] way…. In the places where prisoners are actively involved in gang activities, the normal functioning of the institution is disturbed."49
Finally, in December 2003, the department released a draft white paper—a 20-year vision for correctional services. Two paragraphs of the 100-page draft are devoted to gangs, the second of which reads: "The pervasive manner in which prison gangs assert control over the management of correctional centres requires an anti-prison-gang strategy to be adopted by correctional management."50 Nowhere in the document, however, does the department suggest what such a strategy might entail.
It is clear from the three statements above both that the department is deeply concerned with the problems gangs pose for the governance of prisons, and that it is not sure what to do about them. This is nothing new. Throughout the 20th century, successive governments have oscillated wildly, not only over strategies and tactics, but also over fundamental goals. Some administrators have lobbied to outlaw prison gangs; others have attempted to emasculate them by isolating their leaders; reformers have hoped to tame them by improving harsh prison conditions; still others have attempted to win over Number-gang leaders and enlist their help in dismantling the gangs.51 The Number gangs have, of course, outlived all these administrations.♣
Without a coherent policy from the centre, it appears that the department's approach to gangs varies from region to region and area to area, depending on the character and predilections of senior personnel. My only substantive experience was of Pollsmoor Admission Centre, and that is the prison I discuss here.
In 1997, an enterprising reformer, Johnny Jansen, took charge of Pollsmoor Admission Centre. He inherited a prison which, by all accounts, was in a state of alarming disarray. The transition to democracy had unsettled the institution immensely. Although the prison was ostensibly subject to the rule of law, and despite the fact that corporal punishment, solitary confinement as a form of punishment and, indeed, the whole array of informal discipline had been scrapped, the relationship between warders and inmates, and between inmates themselves, was extremely violent. In 1995, two years before Jansen took office, there were 78 recorded assaults by staff members on prisoners, and 219 assaults by prisoners on one another. The staff itself were fractious and divided, primarily along racial and ethnic lines. According to one staff member who was at Pollsmoor in the mid-1990s: "We were purely in defence mode. Our only aim was to prevent members of staff from being hurt. The gangs could run the prisons as far we were concerned, as long as they didn't touch one of us. So we patrolled with dogs, we had batons on our hips. Our only concern was that they know that if they touch us they will bleed."
According to the testimony of inmates, warders had lost control of the day-to-day running of the prison. "They were too scared even to take us into the yard for exercise," an inmate who had been in Pollsmoor Admission Centre in 1997 told me. "We exercised once a month. There was no sport, no recreation—they were afraid of giving us the freedom to move around. So we sat there in our sections, day in and day out. And the sections were packed. Pollsmoor was nearly 200 per cent overcrowded. We lived on top of each other, in the heat and the cold. The Number ran the sections, not the warders."
On taking charge of the prison in 1997, Jansen began to de-escalate the decades-long war between warders and inmates. Warders were made to understand, for the first time, that the prohibition on violence was for real, that they would be dismissed for assaulting prisoners. Warders were ordered to leave their batons outside the prison gates. The dogs that had customarily patrolled the corridors of the prison were redeployed at the prison gates.
In the awaiting-trial section of the prison, Jansen separated gangsters from non-gangsters, housing them on separate floors. On the floor that housed gangsters—D floor—he identified Number-gang leaders and began talking to them. Within a year of his appointment, he had set up a committee of inmate delegates, each in charge of a different portfolio—sports, food, health, sanitation and so forth. He made a tacit pact with them. He would lift restrictions on movement—increase exercise time, begin sports and recreation again—and consult inmates in regard to aspects of the running of the prison, but only as long as gang leaders took joint responsibility for the maintenance of order in the prison. The success of this initiative hinged on Jansen's capacity to display his integrity to inmates. He had to give his personal assurance that none of his warders would deploy arbitrary violence. He had to ensure that when reasonable complaints were made—about the quality of food, or medical attention, for instance—he was able to deliver. The relationship between warders and gangs under apartheid was one of predictable modes of violence. Jansen had to replace this with a new ethos, one that consisted of predictable modes of mutual agreement.
Jansen also began collaborating with non-governmental organisations. A series of workshops was established in Pollsmoor on conflict management, life skills and personal development. The majority of participants were gang leaders. At the very least, the workshops brought a lengthy peace to the relationship between gangs.
The results of the new atmosphere in the prison were remarkable. By 2000, reported assaults by warders on prisoners were down to 11 (from 78 in 1995). Reported assaults by prisoners on one another were down to 47 (from 219 in 1995).52 Visitors to the prison expressed astonishment at the rapid and tangible changes. One non-governmental-organisation worker, who has visited Pollsmoor regularly since the mid-1990s, told me: "It was extraordinary to see the prison change before my eyes. In 1997, you walked through the corridors with armed guards. The tension was so severe you felt the goose bumps rise on your skin. By 1999, you walked freely through the prison, talking to inmates casually. The food was the same, the overcrowding was the same, but the atmosphere was that of a different planet."
The speed and degree of the de-escalation was remarkable; indeed, it flies in the face of experience in many other parts of the world. Jansen's strategy was high-risk. In a context where the material conditions of incarceration were, if anything, deteriorating, he raised inmate expectations about the quality of prison life. In a context where warders felt physically threatened, he disarmed them and began to demand that they take the idea of rehabilitation seriously. Reform efforts easily backfire in such circumstances. The raised expectations of inmates transmute into frustration and anger. The disarming of warders instils resentment and fear. The old system of control is broken down, but nothing viable replaces it. Inmates sense the uncertainty, and begin to push the boundaries of control as far as they can.53 How did the reform initiative at Pollsmoor Admission Centre avoid these unintended consequences?♣
Perhaps the reform initiative did not, in fact, avoid these pitfalls. Perhaps the distinctive character of Pollsmoor has only masked and delayed some of the problems that accompany projects of reform. The success of reform at Pollsmoor brings to mind a war-devastated economy that suddenly achieves high levels of gross-domestic-product growth simply by opening the factories again. Only once the rudiments of economy activity are back in place do its deep, structural problems begin to manifest themselves. Like the hypothetical post-war economy, the reform project at Pollsmoor started from a very low base. Inmates and warders were armed to the teeth and engaged in internecine conflict. Jansen disarmed and de-escalated. Perhaps his success simply lies in the fact that he brought a modicum of sanity, intelligence and a great deal of personal courage to the running of an institution that had long been crazy.
By the time I arrived in Pollsmoor in 2002, the reform process was five years old and beginning to show its age. Many of the classical problems that accompany reform in difficult environments were beginning to manifest themselves. I was struck in particular by the gap between the prison's official discourse, which emphasised the primacy of rehabilitation, and the immediate and practical concerns of its staff, which concerned control and security.
The agenda of daily staff meetings was of particular interest. Meetings would customarily begin with a prayer and a brief speech by a senior official. The prayer and speech would generally encourage staff to understand the principles of rehabilitation, to treat inmates with humanity, to understand their individual problems and concerns. In short, staff members were reminded repeatedly that their overarching goal was to shore up the human soul that resided within each inmate. "Each member a rehabilitator" was a slogan often used. Yet, when the daily meetings got down to business, discussion would usually turn to questions of control and safety: restricting movement between the sections of the prisons, taking a troublesome inmate out of a food team, plugging a "hole" that had allowed gang leaders in one section to recruit new members in another.
As has been argued repeatedly in the literature on prison management and culture, the goal of maintaining social order in the prison and that of rehabilitating inmates are bound to conflict with one another. Maintaining social order in a prison inevitably sets in motion the infantilising process Goffman speaks of. Movement must be strictly controlled. Private possessions must be constantly searched. Association between inmates must be restricted and carefully monitored. Inmates returning from court must be strip-searched. Implements that could be honed into lethal weapons, like metal spoons, must be kept under control. In short, maintaining control in the prison mortifies inmates; rehabilitation is about fostering adult autonomy. The very management of a prison is constantly at odds with its goal of rehabilitation.
At Pollsmoor Admission Centre, this tension is particularly acute, its manifestations vivid. During the period in which I conducted my research, the prison was severely overcrowded. Many of the communal cells, designed to house 18 inmates, housed 40 or 50. Needless to say, privacy was the scarcest resource in the prison. Day in and day out, inmates lived in one another's lives. Even more troubling, the imperatives of controlling an overcrowded prison meant that warders were in no position to alleviate the cramped, claustrophobic conditions in the jail. Inmates were locked in their cells between 4pm and 7am every day. Although inmates were supposed to spend an hour a day in the exercise yard, most were lucky to get an hour a week. This was not the result of malevolence on the part of staff. The prison was simply so crowded that staff could not both maintain control and give each inmate an hour of daily exercise. Inmates were forced to spend most of each day idle, in cramped quarters, because the exigencies of control did not permit otherwise. The task of treating inmates with humanity and controlling them clashed every hour of every day. Inevitably, the exigencies of the latter must win out in the end. In this context, talk of rehabilitation as a primary goal smacked of madness for many warders—it simply did not make sense in the context of the reality of their day-to-day work.
Here is a particular anecdote, but it is emblematic of a general problem in prison management. During the period of my research at Pollsmoor, the 28s split into two factions. Faction A was led by an incumbent leader, whom I shall call "Buttons", Faction B by a usurper, whom I shall call "Hassan". Hassan wanted to build an army. He told his followers that whoever stabbed an officer in Faction A would get his victim's post in the gang. And whoever stabbed Buttons himself would become Hassan's right-hand man. I discovered this in the course of speaking to 28s.
In the midst of this conflict, I sat in on a meeting between Hassan and a senior warder. The warder lectured Hassan a long time, appealing to him to de-escalate the conflict in the 28s, appealing to his humanity, asking him to help make Pollsmoor a tolerable place. Throughout the interview, I sensed that the warder had insufficient information, that he was not aware that Hassan was in the thick of a power struggle, that the stakes were far too high for him to climb down now. I sensed that the warder was simply going through the motions of talking to Hassan, and that he actually did not know what to say to him. When the meeting was over, I told the warder what I knew—about the conflict between Hassan and Buttons, and about Hassan offering his soldiers senior positions if they won the war on his behalf.
"I know all that," the warder replied. "But I dare not tell Cups that I know what he's up to. If I confront him he will target me, I'll have to watch my back. I can't confront him because I don't have a plan. I can tell him I know what he's doing, but then what do I do next?"
This is a classic scenario—one in which a warder has ceded a sphere of power to a prison gang, but goes through the motions of pretending that he is still in control. The warder in question was not a bad warder: on the contrary, he was one of the most thoughtful and innovative staff members I met at Pollsmoor. The problem is that the official discourse of the prison did not guide him in how to do his job. The official discourse spoke of rehabilitation. It was entirely irrelevant to his most urgent daily task—maintaining control.
This is not to argue that prison administrators should abandon the aim of rehabilitation, still less the aim of treating inmates with humanity. But it does strongly suggest that, given current conditions in South African prisons, administrators would do well to acknowledge that the better part of their job does inevitably infantilise inmates, that inmates will keep adjusting to this infantilisation by immersing themselves in gang activity, and that a daily prerogative of prison governance will always remain the maintenance of control. The improvement of poor conditions cannot happen without control. Nor can successful rehabilitation programmes. The real question is how to recover control in a manner that frees up the space for better conditions and for rehabilitation.♣
The comments above might be restricted to Pollsmoor Admission Centre, but they are germane to the general question of the future of prison policy—particularly policy in relation to prison gangs.
Number gangs are here to stay in Western Cape prisons. They have survived and flourished over many decades and there is no prospect of them wilting now. For one, their newfound iconic status outside prison, at the heart of the Western Cape's underground economy, is powerful and is set to last. The idea of Nongoloza the millionaire robber baron organises the collective imagination of the underworld and animates the players in the illicit economy. The legend of prison gangs is too entrenched to disappear in the near future.
Conditions within prisons themselves also foster the longevity of the Number gangs. The recent introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing means that the prisons are increasingly filled with long-term inmates. Much of their adult lives are lived in total institutions; the wells of psychological need from which prison gangs draw run deep. Finally, the extent of overcrowding in South African prisons means that inmate experience will remain an intensely communal and infantilising one for the foreseeable future. These are precisely the conditions in which gangs flourish.
The Draft White Paper on Corrections in South Africa published in December 2003 envisages a gradual alleviation of the harsh conditions in South African prisons. It envisages a prison environment in 20 years' time in which each prisoner has an adequate sphere of privacy, the opportunity to educate him or herself and to work, and has reflected meaningfully on his or her crime. There can be little doubt that as prison staff members move towards implementing these goals, they will come up against the rival goal of maintaining order. Will it be possible to give inmates the freedom of movement and association required for meaningful work and recreation while maintaining order at the same time? How does one both grant these freedoms and contain the power of the Number gangs? Any warder in a South African prison knows from his or her daily experience that this question is paramount.
This is not a reactionary argument for a return to discipline at its most uncompromising. It is simply an appeal that the department recognises the most fundamental characteristic of the institutions it administers: they keep human beings confined against their will. Only once the department acknowledges that the maintenance of order is central will it be able to deal with the question of order in a way that makes rehabilitation possible.
In this regard, there are important lessons to be learnt from a particular slice of the Pollsmoor experience. As mentioned earlier, one of Jansen's first moves as head of Pollsmoor Admission Centre was to establish a committee of inmate delegates, each member of the committee assigned to a particular portfolio—food, recreation, health, and so forth. The 26s, 27s and 28s were not represented as distinct blocks on the committee. But Jansen did ensure that each committee member was a prominent gang leader.
The nature of his interaction with the committee was akin to a pact. He increased spheres of freedom in the prison—freedom of movement in particular. In exchange, the gangs were forbidden to use new freedoms malevolently. An example of such a tacit pact might be, for instance: "exercise time will be doubled, I will permit soccer and cricket matches in the yard, but the moment there is an assault in the yard, recreation is suspended". Or: "I will set up channels for you to complain about the quality of the food, and I will do my best to address your dietary complaints, but you must play by my rules—no stabbings, no assaults". The running of the prison bureaucracy loses its dictatorial arbitrariness; managerial decisions are discussed with inmates and become predictable and rational. But, in exchange, inmates must observe a prohibition on ritual gang violence.
It is a simple quid pro quo. Conditions improve. Inmates themselves assist in the running of new spheres of freedom. The prison staff allows inmates to regulate domains of prison life, but only if those domains are run according to staff rules. The moment there is a transgression, the domains of freedom shrink.
Such a strategy is, of course, laden with risks, and the establishment of inmate committees composed of prison-gang leaders has had mixed success elsewhere.54 The fabric of the pact will always be fragile, since a degree of animosity is built into the very structure of the relationship. Inmates are bound to resent the pact. They will be asked, in essence, to collaborate in maintaining the rules of their custodians, and they will inevitably strain against the roles they are being offered. The pact is sure to fail whenever the new domains of freedom offered to inmates are merely nominal. In that case, there is no quid pro quo, merely an opportunity for gang leaders to push the staff to the margins of the prison. The pact is also sure to fail when the prison administration's behaviour becomes unpredictable. Arbitrary violence, the withdrawal of privileges for reasons that are unintelligible to inmates—these would destroy the pact instantly.
But when the relationship works, the politics of prison life becomes increasingly benign. Gangs remain, and go through the motions of practising their rituals. But the pernicious aspects of gang activity, like the taking of blood at initiation and promotion, begin to wither. The administration would have shored up order, not through a simple show of force, but through the establishment of a predictable and demonstrably rational regime, one in which inmates benefit when they play by the rules.
The goal of such policy is not to eradicate gangs. It is to minimise violence and to transfer spheres of social control from inmates to staff. A policy to eliminate gangs will achieve neither of these goals.♣
The White Paper insists that the primary goal of the Department of Correctional Services is to rehabilitate. Yet it gives no policy directives in regard to the maintenance and management of overcrowded prisons. It mentions that warders have ceded control to gangs in many prisons, but gives no directives as to how warders can win it back. It is almost as if the authors of the White Paper regard the heart and soul of a warder's job as "dirty work", work that is best not spoken about.
Work that is not spoken about becomes work done poorly. As the disjuncture between head office policy and the reality of prison life grows, so warders gradually sidestep policy and do their work according to the dictates of their own informal "rules"—"rules" that involve both violence and corruption. The result is that the White Paper's complaint about the poor quality of staff could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, the White Paper's own primary goal, rehabilitation, could be undermined: the best rehabilitation programmes in the world will be ineffectual and meaningless if the moral and physical fabric of prison life is at odds with the values and precepts of rehabilitation.
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Nongoloza's Children: W. Cape Prison Gangs: Introduction
» » 1: Nongoloza and Kilikijan
» » 2: The functions of violence I—Making men (and not children)
» » 3: The functions of violence II—Making men (and not women)
» » 4: Prison on the streets, the streets in prison
» » 5: Warders and gangs