It lies at the foot of Muizenberg Mountain, tucked away between the Steenberg wine fields and the mystical Tokai forest. Notorious for its “Numbers Gangs” and as unforgiving as the Cape of Storms once were. Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison.
I had a rear opportunity to photograph some of its inmates at a HIV awareness program held in the prison’s recreational centre. Normally it is strictly forbidden to show the faces of its convicted residents but seeing as I was invited for the occasion, permission was granted.
Some of South Africa’s most dangerous criminals are held in Pollsmoor Prison. The prison has a staff of 1278 and the capacity to accommodate 4336 offenders, but the current inmate population is over 7000. This figure fluctuates daily.
On my visit to the facility, there was a calm mood among the inmates. Even though there was a strong presents of prison guards, the prisoners spoke openly about their past lives and present treatment.
The gang related tattoos was visible on most of the inmate’s necks, arms and faces.
Gangsterism is a potent feature of Pollsmoor Prison life, and gangs are segregated into three separate sections on a single floor. The “Numbers Gangs” consists of the 28’s, 27’s and 26’s and dates back to the 1890’s.
Nelson Mandela was the most famous inmate of the prison. He describes Pollsmoor Prison as the truth of Oscar Wilde’s haunting line about the tent of blue that prisoners call the sky. Mandela first spent 18 years on Robben Island, before being transferred to Pollsmoor prison in 1982.
Inmates spend nearly all day in their overcrowded cells, and spend only one hour a day having outdoor exercise in enclosed courtyards. Little exercise occurs during this hour, since gang leaders utilise this time to communicate with prisoners in other cells, exchange drugs and mete out punishment to those in other cells. Any inmate who dares to exercise is called to attention before the gang leaders and may face punishment.
On this specific occasion, inmates were rewarded for their good behavior during the HIV awareness project with a braai (barbecue) and a stage performance that focuses on life after prison. After spending some time talking to the prisoners, it dawned on me that sadly most of the prisoners that I have met are convicted of such harrowing crimes, that they will never see freedom again.
© Photos: Armand Hough