What’s a holding cell or prison like?

I would not be surprised if loyal readers of this column arrogantly flipped this page quickly. Animated by the attitude, ‘why should I know? After all, I am a law-abiding citizen, and so are my loved ones!’ Naïve, shallow and dangerous reasoning that will always suffocate under the weight of its own arrogance! As little as four weeks ago, who would have known that a colossal figure in South African politics would be sent up the river, not for a day, or a week, but for a spine-tingling 15 months! This world is full of surprises to boot! You may with a sense of pride say, Jacob Zuma deserved it. It is not for me to argue with you on the merits or otherwise of the shocking carceral punishment meted out to him, save to hazard that, conventional wisdom suggests if you are in the habit of pulling the covers over your head, you may need an in-depth sobering reality check to rescue yourself from that harmful hibernation.

Whenever you think of penal institutions, what pictures immediately spring to your mind? An impenetrable fortress with razor barbed wire mounted on top of tall unscalable walls? High-security gates and doors? Uncountable motion detecting dome and bullet cameras? Has it never struck you as odd that, though we are made to believe prisons are meant to deter us from committing crimes, we are hardly ever shown their interior, unless of course in a movie or censored documentary setting! Since March 2020, officials have consistently harped the message of keeping our head down, but have you ever wondered whether COVID-19 protocols are observed in prisons? How many prisoners have contracted COVID-19? How many recovered? What percentage succumbed to the virus?

I don’t know about you, but I have heard chilling stories of holding cells. The jury is out on whether they are a true reflection of the atmosphere endured by people prior to being charged and tried in a court of law. Unconvicted people, normally suspects, kept in these temporary detention areas for no more than 48 hours, often share stories that would make you wonder, what happened to humanity! Poorly ventilated and unhygienic filthy rooms, reeking with all sorts of overpowering offending odours. Pungent and nauseous distinctive stench of bodies crying out for a shower, an antiperspirant and a deodorant. And overwhelming urine and faecal foul smell from a toilet that is not secluded. Flimsy, unwashed and stinking blankets that change hands frequently. Add to that the unpalatable language from the hosts who are only too eager to promise their guests some form of torture. If all this is true, you don’t ever want to find yourself in this space. But it could happen. Even worse, you may end up in prison. Resist the temptation to hold the downright quixotic belief that prisons are only for the guilty. Life happens! Privileged rogues can leverage their artificially inflated self-serving power, flex their muscle and humiliate you for decades.

Herein lies the nub of this article, you may find yourself taking that petrifying perp walk of shame, incarcerated for an offence you did not commit. The community places a lot of pressure on the police and the entire infrastructure of justice, to try, convict and incarcerate criminals within a reasonable time frame. This normally happens in murder, rape, kidnapping, and high-profile robberies. Some important links in the justice value-chain may buckle under pressure and go rogue. Under immense pressure to meet community expectations and make their superiors shine, a few crooked cops and integrity starved prosecutors have manufactured evidence against innocent individuals and destroyed lives. They have coerced suspects into making false confessions, chosen to ignore credible alibis and evidence in favour of suspects, connived with other professionals to concoct forensic and DNA evidence against suspects, and withheld witness statements favourable to suspects. Victims have been forced to do time following willful manipulation of the system by trusted officers.


A case in point is that of a black teenager who lived in Detroit named Davontae Sanford. I will spare you the callous details. On the strength of a confession that he was forced to make, fabricated evidence by two black police officers, and coercion to plead guilty by his ethics-compromised white attorney, ‘creative’ jurisprudence held sway, and Sanford was sentenced to a term of 39 to 90 years for the murder of four men. Despite several attempts at retracting the said confession, Sanford’s constitutional rights were unduly violated. He ended up doing jail time of close to nine years. Sanford was only exonerated after a hitman named Vincent Smothers confessed to the quadruple homicide. While fabrication of critical evidence might be the exception rather than the norm in the justice value-chain, the fact remains, just as the justice system of a developed nation supposedly miles ahead in jurisprudential refinement horribly failed Sanford, injustice might come knocking on your door uninvited. Of course, this happened in the US, I leave it to those in the know to share similar local or regional examples.

Apart from a compromised justice system, bodies endowed with the power to legislate may from time to time enact hostile laws that a subset of the citizenry would find offensive, giving rise to conscientious personal, religious and political objections.

Conscientious objectors normally come to the fore in cases of conscription. Absolute pacifists, alternativists and non-combatants might reject efforts at drafting them in the army, and where the law only provides for custodial sentence, these people might find themselves languishing in penitentiaries, undeservedly so. Some religions have holy books which they consider to be God’s sacred word, and in their view, these will always override any human decree in value and authority. Like one wise man, they hold the view that, ‘When the law of man conflicts with the law of God, the law of man is ultra vires.’ Slighted by this attitude, authorities may seek to punish such people through imprisonment. The strangely alluring morality infused galling stance of, ‘I am a law-abiding citizen,’ will not save such individuals from carceral punishment.

For the reasons articulated above, anyone might find themselves in a penal institution for all the wrong reasons. Hence the need to care about what happens in holding cells and prisons. In England, in the 18th Century, jails were used by authorities as holding places for accused and convicted criminals before punishment was meted out. For serious offences, the most severe punishment came in the form of a death penalty. For lesser infractions of the law, culprits were either subjected to monetary fines, or cruel vagaries such as being humbled by brutal lashes on the back or public humiliation on the pillory.

In this modern era, crucial principles of humanity are often left at the gate when offenders are driven into prison grounds. Admittedly, prisons would fail to serve their role if prisoners were accorded all civil liberties. Many nations can learn from the rehabilitative prison systems of countries such as Norway, Finland and Austria. The focus of warders is not on administering the type of punishment that might be considered an onslaught against humanity, but on respecting the human rights of prisoners. In Norway, every prisoner is assigned a contact officer trained and equipped with skills required for the rehabilitation of prisoners. Beaming with a smile on his face, a prisoner who was transferred from Brazil to Norway gave this burbling encomium to the latter’s prison system, “It felt like a transfer from hell to heaven...In Norway, the guards are very kind.”

Right outside the Justice Centre Leoben, a prison in Austria, the following phrase is inscribed on a plaque, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” No doubt, for all warders walking into the facility each day, this beautiful reminder amplifies the need to treat all inmates humanely. With this example in mind, we constantly need to ask ourselves, what’s a holding cell or prison like in Botswana, for we never know when we could land there.

This article is not a highbrow self-righteous oxygen-sucking rant, but a spirited call to inspire open-mindedness. At the risk of being derided for flaunting extreme nihilism tinged with a vague but deep-seated resentment for functional structures in place for disciplining wayward members of our community, I boldly caution, may we never say never, for as sure as eggs is eggs, an innocent person is serving time somewhere in the world for an offence he did not commit!

Editor's Comment
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