The Herald (South Africa)
Hard look at life in maximum security prison
You either join a gang or remain a “Franz ” and face the consequences for as long as you are in prison.
This ultimatum is just one revelation of the conditions in SA’s Brandvlei Correctional Centre, as seen on the new season of international docu-series, Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons.
In one of the new season’s episodes, journalist and exprisoner Raphael Rowe spends a week inside Brandvlei’s maximum and medium units and Ebongweni super-max prison with inmates.
Painting a picture of the inner workings of the popular Numbers gang culture, Rowe takes the viewer through his “initiation ” on his first day, his engagements with high-ranking gang members and some of the warders in the prison system, while making some shocking discoveries.
Speaking to The Herald about his experience in the facility, Rowe said he found Brandvlei near Worcester to be among the most secure facilities he had been to, a characteristic that speaks to the danger of the inmates being housed inside.
“The experience, from the initiation process, was quite shocking and really intimidating because the inmates wouldn ’ t communicate directly with me, only with each other in a language I couldn’t understand.
“The staff made it clear that the regime being run in Brandvlei was different from what you would experience in other medium prisons and that they had very little control over how the Numbers gangs operate, ” Rowe said.
The journalist had to gain the trust of the prisoners, some of whom are serving life sentences for murder and other crimes, and get them to open up on camera.
While some did their best to keep away from the camera, there were others who were forthcoming, Rowe said.
“At first there was a bit of reluctance from some, but after one or two days of talking to me they relaxed because they understood quite quickly that I wasn ’ t there to paint a particular picture.
“I think it comes down to both my skill as a journalist and my history as a former prisoner,” he said.
Rowe was wrongfully arrested in the UK for murder and acquitted after 12 years upon clearing his name.
“I know what it’s like to feel the pain of being confined in a space for many years, the stresses and strains of not seeing the people you love and what it takes to pretend you’re tougher that you really are,” he said.
His own experience, Rowe said, made him empathetic and able to humanise prisoners instead of labelling them.
This made it possible for him to get through to even the seemingly coldest of prisoners.
During the episode, Rowe speaks to the leader of the Number 28 gang, Curtis, who opens up to him about the pressures, expectations and responsibilities of being head of the gang.
He also speaks to several prison warders about working in a facility where their lives are constantly in danger.
Rowe also visits Ebongweni super-max prison in Kokstad, SA’s most secure prison facility housing the most hard-core offenders, where he met the notorious 28s gang leader George “Geweld ” Thomas.
Putting a spotlight on the difficulties faced by reformed criminals, Rowe conversed with another former gang member who said he had accepted Jesus Christ as his saviour and wanted to lead a changed life upon release.
“Many of these prisoners are desperately looking for an escape but because out there they face a society that labels them, and paints them with the same stigma, it becomes very hard for them to be reintegrated into society and easier to fall back into their old routine of crime,” Rowe said.
In the three-part season, Rowe also visits Nuuk Maximum Security Prison in Greenland and Manila City Jail in the Philippines.
Season 5 of Inside the
’ will World s Toughest Prisons be on Netflix from today.