Exclusive: Inside the hellish prison where Nelson Mandela was held

Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town (CNN)Before we even see the cell, we can smell it. It’s the suffocating stench of 86 men squeezed into a room built for 19.

A warden shoves a key into a rusted iron grate. “Get back,” he shouts. The inmates stumble backwards to allow the door to swing open.

    The cell is a rectangular room with bunk beds stacked three tiers high. In one corner the detainees share a toilet and cold shower, but often the best they can do is a bucket.

    Some detainees are dressed in regulation yellow garb, some in various levels of undress. It’s summer and it’s stifling in here. In winter it’s brutally cold. The detainees say they are let outside to exercise once a week at best. Skin diseases are endemic; catching tuberculosis is extremely likely.

    And none of the men has been convicted.

    “The worst thing is to see how the people must lie lay here on the floor next to each other at night,” says Clive, who has been here for two years and two months awaiting trial. “Animals could live like this, but not human beings.”

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    Some, like Clive, get stuck here because of endless trial delays, some because they can’t afford bail of as little as 50 Rand (less then $5), some because they are foreign nationals waiting to get deported.

    “We don’t invite them here as correctional services. They come here because they do alleged crimes,” says Cecil John Jacobs, the acting head of the remand facility.

    But observers say the problems here are endemic and reflect a South African criminal justice system in crisis.

    “It’s a 20-year problem, with no end in sight in terms of conditions and the sheer numbers that they detain,” says Clare Ballard, an attorney with Lawyers for Human Rights, who are suing the South African government.

    A bland facade with a troubling history


    Unlike many prison bosses, Jacob’s prime objective is to get his detainees out. He walks around with a one-sheet he wrote on the basics of plea-bargaining. He likes to hand it to detainees when he makes his case.

    “It gets them out quicker,” he says.

    Jacobs readily admits that the conditions for convicted prisoners, who often qualify for privileges, are far better than for those in the remand center. It’s a powerful incentive, guilty or not, to get out of the crowded detention cells.

    But he is losing the battle.

    “If four hundred get released today, five hundred will arrive tomorrow,” he says, “Today there are 4,284 detainees here. It’s supposed to house 1,619.”

    The center is often at 300% of capacity. If the statistics are hard to grasp, the reality is so much worse.

    Every weekday morning the blue and white police trucks arrive at Pollsmoor. Detainees are brought down, crosschecked, and stacked into the back. The trucks fan out to scores of courts in neighboring towns — some up to fifty miles away.

    But prison officials and former detainees agree that court documents are frequently missing, lawyers don’t show up, and key evidence is misplaced.

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    So the trucks come back, still packed with detainees. And they shuffle straight back to their crowded and diseased cells, where they will spend months or perhaps even years in this prison.

    “It’s inhumane,” admits Jacobs. “The fact is, it’s inhumane.”

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