Sunday Times

A deafening silence of grey walls and steel


THE corridors are deadly quiet, apart from the footsteps of warders and the occasional sound of a prisoner talking, moaning or even grumbling in his cell.

In this eerie silence, South Africa’s own Houdini — serial escape artist Ananias Mathe — got to work.

Using pieces of metal taken from his cell door, he chipped away at the wall. Before the guards did their nightly inspection, he used a home-made paste to cover up his handiwork. It is a similar colour to the off-white paint, so the guards did not notice.

Day after day, Mathe, 38, chipped away at the wall, trying to make a hole.

This continued until, one day, a guard noticed what he was up to. Mathe was immediatel­y moved to the cell next door, and his brazen bid for freedom — in the form of a 33cm cut in the wall — was brought to an abrupt end.

But even if Mathe had escaped from his cell, he would have found himself inside that quiet corridor, and into the waiting arms of warders, who would have picked him up on one of the hundreds of CCTV cameras installed across the prison.

This is the reality of the eBongweni C-Max Prison in Kokstad. There is, quite simply, no getting out.

Even if Mathe had slipped past those guards and cameras undetected, he would have been confronted with about a dozen electronic gates and doors that are opened and closed from a central command centre in the bowels of the building.

Had he managed


get through and outside the building itself, he would have had to sneak past other guards and over three barbed wire fences.

Then, and only then, would he have caught a first glimpse of freedom — but he would still have had to make his way out of the guarded and fenced prison ground itself before truly tasting freedom.

The Sunday Times was taken on a tour of the “super-maximum security” prison, which is home to 1 203 of South Africa’s most dangerous and violent prisoners.

The prison, officials said this week, was so escape-proof that Mathe’s breakout bid in Septem-

ONE-MAN CHAIN GANG: A prisoner cleans the bathroom at eBongweni C-Max Prison in Kokstad ber 2013 was the only attempt in the facility’s 13-year history.

“eBongweni is the symbol of no escape — not only in KwaZulu-Natal but across the country,” said regional commission­er Mnikelwa Nxele.

The C-Max in Kokstad — which was built in 2002 at a cost of R450-million — is home not only to South Africa’s most violent criminals, but also those considered too problemati­c to be at other correction­al centres.

“Some of the offenders are here simply because of the violent nature and seriousnes­s of their crimes. But some are brought here because they have shown behavioura­l problems,” said Nxele.

Mathe was one of those, having escaped from two maximum security prisons in the past.

From the outside, the red facebrick prison looks like any other jail.

It has typically high walls, three layers of fencing and a raft of CCTV cameras ensuring that every inch of the perimeter is

MAXIMUM SECURITY: eBongweni C-Max Prison in Kokstad QUIET TIME, ALL THE TIME: Convicted murderer Mazizandil­e Ndubela in his cell at C-Max covered at all times.

Inside, it is completely different.

The cement corridors are dull and lifeless. Every step and word echoes off the plain white walls. The clanging of the remote-controlled gates and shutters reverberat­es as one moves through the various sections. And it is cold. Extractor fans ensure that the temperatur­e is never above the low 20s.

Inmates stay in single cells, never getting a look at the others because all the doors face the same direction. Each cell has a stainless steel basin and toilet, a thin mattress on a cement block, and a desk.

The walls are solid concrete, and the door is solid steel with a shoebox-size slot that food gets passed through.

Everything that Mathe and the other inmates see for 23 hours of their day is through this small slot.

There is no TV, no communal lounge, dining room or recreation­al area. Everything the prisoners do, they do alone. And when they do leave their cells — never for more than one hour a day — they are handcuffed and there is a warder right alongside them.

As we walked into the cell block Mathe stays in, which is made up of two banks of five cells on top of each other, pris- oners immediatel­y stuck their heads out of the slots in their doors to see what was going on. Prisoners on the upper level, who could not see the activity on the lower level, shouted out, trying to find out what was happening.

Nxele said: “Across the country, there is nothing else like this. It was designed with stringent security in mind, knowing that this is our centre of last resort.

“You cannot allow a situation where somebody who has raped and killed 55 women is seen to be enjoying prison luxuries. There is nothing like that here, OK?”

No prisoner ever goes from CMax straight back into society. They go to other prisons first.

“Nobody wants to be here. It’s not a nice place to be.”

Across the country, there is nothing else like this

Comment on this: write to tellus@sundaytime­ or SMS us at 33971

 ?? Pictures: THULI DLAMINI ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa