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WATCH | Prisoners‚ pigs and no privacy: We take you inside Leeuwkop prison

01 November 2018 - 09:34 By Naledi Shange

A herd of cattle are grazing near a dam while some men‚ dressed in orange overalls‚ tend to nearby vegetable gardens.

On the other side of the property‚ the stench of manure fills the air as a group of pregnant pigs and their young rest.

But this is not your average farm‚ and neither are the men in orange ordinary farm workers. They are prisoners‚ and this is Leeuwkop‚ a prison in the middle of the affluent suburb of Bryanston‚ Johannesburg. A place where some of the country's most notorious prisoners‚ including Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir‚ are kept behind bars.

In a bid to change perceptions about prison life in South Africa‚ the department of correctional services opened the gates to the Maximum-C section of the prison this week.

Some have criticised the prison system for being a walk in the park for inmates‚ who receive free meals‚ medical care and education. Others believe the country's prisons to be a breeding ground for criminals‚ where drugs and gangs are common.

A tall barbed wire gate screeched as it slowly shut‚ leaving the group of journalists locked inside during a tour led by prison officials. A walk through the narrow‚ dark and winding passages – lined with cold burglar bars – led to an open courtyard with painted walls.

"We all receive forgiveness for our sins‚" reads one mural.

From the courtyard‚ officials unlocked the gate into the facility proper; a place that harbours inmates convicted of crimes ranging from rape to murder to high treason.

As the media walked through an open section of the prison‚ scores of inmates filled a second courtyard‚ all dressed in identical orange prison garb. Some of the uniforms were more faded than others. Some hung their uniforms on washing lines made from old uniforms that had been ripped into long strands and tied together to create a makeshift rope. Other prisoners spread their washed clothes on the cement.

More than 4‚000 inmates are at this prison. A total of 1‚175 are in the maximum security section‚ but just 275 were placed in the unit that the media was allowed into.

Seemingly anticipating the arrival of the visitors‚ the prisoners stood outside the cells‚ playing board games‚ chatting among themselves and watching as the media entourage made its way in.

We walked into one tiny cell‚ which seemed crammed with bunk beds and lockers‚ books‚ papers and prisoners.

A picture of one of South Africa's most iconic former prisoners‚ Nelson Mandela‚ was placed on the wall next to a television set on top of a locker. Two bare toilets and two showers‚ with no doors or curtains‚ were positioned on the one side of the cell.

The beds‚ which we were later told were made by the prison's very own inmates‚ were welded together for safety reasons and were neatly made with their old‚ well-worn cream pillow cases placed on them.

One prisoner proudly displayed a calendar with the image of a little girl‚ dressed in school uniform‚ on his bed.

"This cell has the capacity to hold 46 inmates. It currently has 41 prisoners‚" said Grace Molatedi‚ regional commissioner for the Gauteng region of prisons‚ adding that the overcrowded prison was at 150% capacity.

A notice saying "exam in progress" was placed outside the door to a room just a stone's throw away from the cells. Inside the room‚ a handful of prisoners took their place at their desks‚ writing their engineering exams. Other inmates stood close by‚ seemingly invigilating.

These were some of the students of 45-year-old prisoner Kobus Pretorius‚ who was part of the apartheid loyalists the Boeremag. This group tried to overthrow the South African government in an attempted coup in 2002 and planned to assassinate Mandela.

Pretorius‚ a self-acknowledged former racist‚ was serving a 20-year sentence for high treason.

Speaking to the media‚ Pretorius said he was proud of his students and admitted that prison had come as a blessing to him.

"Since [my incarceration]‚ I questioned many things about my upbringing and I completely changed as a person‚" said Pretorius‚ who explained that he grew up in a right-wing home.

Being forced to live with those very same people he was taught to be superior of‚ Pretorius said: "Most of the things I knew about black people aren't true."

Prison officials then took the media contingent to the medical centre. The facility can admit 34 patients at a time and administers treatment for all kinds of ailments‚ ranging from TB to HIV‚ diabetes and various injuries.

The operations manager for the health facility‚ Hessie Gina‚ said they currently had 55 patients receiving treatment for mental illnesses but they were all stable and had returned to their cells.

Therapists and dentists make regular visits to the facility‚ but difficult cases are transferred to the local hospitals.

The mortality rate for the previous financial year at the prison stood at three. Only one fatality had been reported this year‚ Gina said.

In a different section‚ prisoners are wearing breathing masks and glasses and there is a sound of grinding on metal and cutting through wood.

In this part of the facility‚ at least 60 inmates are brought in each day. They acquire the skills to make tables and chairs‚ fancy wooden furniture‚ bunk beds and cupboards‚ which are ultimately distributed to different state offices.

Speaking to TimesLIVE on the sidelines of the media visit‚ Lucky Mthethwa‚ who is the deputy chief of security for prison facilities across the country‚ said that apart from learning valuable skills‚ working in these facilities was beneficial to the prisoners.

"They are paid a gratuity of some sort; an incentive. It also motivates them to do good‚" he said‚ adding this was also considered when they applied for parole.

In another section of the prison‚ the grunting of some pigs disturbs the silence as prisoners tend to the little piglets.

Leeuwkop prison has 2‚054 pigs on its premises – 154 are for breeding purposes while the rest are meant for slaughter.

"Every month‚ 15 to 16 tons are slaughtered‚" said correctional officer Sejane Lesenyanho‚ who is part of the agriculture project at the facility.

The pork and beef produce is then sent to other prisons for food.

With the ability to make their own furniture and produce much of their own food‚ this facility could be deemed a highly self-sufficient facility.

Prisoners who spoke to TimesLIVE expressed gratitude at serving time at Leeuwkop‚ as opposed to some of the country's other prisons.

"While I'm in here‚ I have something to distract me from the gangs and all sorts of bad things. And I am working towards something that will help keep me alive once I get out of here. I will definitely be able to live a different lifestyle once I get out of prison‚" said Neo‚ as he stapled material into the chair he was making.