The typography of the sign at the entrance looks better suited to a theme park than a notorious maximum security jail. Pollsmoor’s prison gates appear innocuously opposite open green space along a leafy boulevard in moneyed Tokai. Most of the landscape around here is dedicated to gated three-storey new build residential complexes and quasi-suburban wine estates with award-winning restaurants recommended South Africa’s top gourmand guides. Once you turn into the parking lot for Pollsmoor and step out of the car, you’re well and truly through the rabbithole.
M. turned up late. He was to be our fixer: a former inmate and close friend the prisoner we were here to see. At 8am on Easter Saturday we began circling Salt River train station, on the fringes of the Cape Town CBD – never looking quite so bleak in a heavily overcast, rainy squall – trying to spot a dude in a leather jacket and white hat. One-eyed with a big scar on his cheek, my colleague Lee and I (both underslept) were already anxious by the time M. appeared. We hastily bundled him into the car and made our way through the fall-out from the morning’s Two Oceans marathon that had threatened to delay this journey at its outset. As we rattled down the M3 in my old Golf, the tail-end of the runners steamed along the other carriageway. The overweight, the walkers, the wheezing. The costumed funrunners.
We knew we were at the early stages of our own small ordeal: to try and navigate our way through the levels of red tape, inefficiency and apathy of the South African Department of Correction’s visiting procedures, starring a cast of seemingly thousands brown-jerseyed guards, desk clerks, marshalls, managers, friskers, watchers and general malingerers: each playing a bit part in making it a bewildering and painstaking process, largely organised by small pieces of handwritten scrap paper.
M was appointed to come along as he was armed with the previous experience (inside and out) of navigating through the steeplechase of waiting areas, chits and frowning bureaucrats. We warmed to him in the car, his tardiness quickly forgiven as he opened up about life inside and his apparent dedication to self-rehab. Only 23 years old, he spent 4 years in juvenile and the rest in Medium B, with a short spell in the notorious Maximum wing where the infamous Numbers gangs run things (as seen on Ross Kemp’s sensationalist documentary). He had been inside with our newly incarcerated friend, but had stayed out of trouble by devoting himself to his books and education. The gang Generals, he told me, left him alone: he respected them and they respected the fact that he was a bookworm with no interest in the thug life – apparently referring to him as ‘Brother’ as if he were a scholarly priest.
Entering the jail, we almost fell at the first hurdle: a pre-entry ‘chat’ where two facetious warders (known by inmates as ‘Members’) almost rumbled that we were a group of three when only two are allowed to visit each inmate. M, thinking quickly on his feet, came up with the name of a second inmate (we never asked if he made it up) and the scowling guards waved us through.
After a passport and Visa check (the guard swore he’d met me before), a frisk inside a floral cloth curtained booth, and a short wait for Lee (delayed since most visitors are women so the queue is longer for their frisking) we found ourselves in the first level of purgatory: a painfully slow snaking seated queue edging along benches waiting to register ourselves with the desk clerks. Here we had our first glance of inmates, unmistakable in garish orange prison tunics and slacks, wafting brooms around and casting sideways glances at the living, breathing, and mainly female, technicolour citizens of this temporary halfway house between their hell and the real world.
Wives, daughters, girlfriends and grandmothers eyed us up with curiosity – us waiting patiently in line, M told us later, was an unusual sight, as this crew of regulars were used to white visitors pushing straight to the front.
After over an hour we reached the desk where a portly female Member noted down our passport numbers and addresses, and gave us a slip of paper with X’s name. Although not his actual name, as it turns out. An administrative error had meant he was registered under a completely different – and unlikely sounding – first name. The Members chuckled as they handed us the slip of paper and wafted us toward the far door.
We then spent another thirty minutes waiting, watching sugared-up toddlers rampaging up and down as the dozy, dwindling group clustered around a pair of benches was summoned in small batches. We went last, into a packed minibus-taxi which whisked us all of 400 yards around the perimeter fence, taking a right at Maximum security, and dropped us at the gateway to the Medium B visiting area. Another unremarkable single story brick monolith, once again everyone except us knew the procedure: the 6-in/ 6-out flow through the metal turnstile, checking in valuables at the counter, purchasing items for our friend (which he could claim in a few days time) from the cupboard-cum-shop, and passing cash through a barred window for him to use on the inside.
As M and I stood outside, and he pointed out the Juvenile section behind us where he spent his time, we watched a new prisoner arrive, backed into the belly of the building through a double-gate. Shortly after, another prisoner exited through the same gate, this time on a stretcher, wheeled by two paramedics, looking pale and half-dead. A burly guard trailed him swinging cuffs and shackles for his arms and legs as the paramedics eased him and his drip into the ambulance.
Three hours after arriving we eventually found ourselves in the final ante-room: a small, bustling corridor with a bewildering stream of Members endlessly bowling back and forth, the female guard on the gate patiently opening and closing, opening and closing, each time turning the lock with an enormous brass key. The atmosphere was unmistakably light-hearted. Perhaps the guards enjoyed having civvies in the building. Some were helpful, some surly, but many clowned and joked like sixth formers in a common room. Meat-headed senior white warders with broken noses and granite jawlines barked commands in Afrikaans: the process was entirely unclear. As far as we could tell, one-by-one the members went through to find each requested inmate to fish them out for visiting time. Prisoners came and went from all directions, some showing little apparent deference to their keepers, chatting casually and joining in the general sense of eerie bonhomie. One or two sniffed and flexed as they walked past us back towards their cells, posturing for the real world.
As I checked in my valuables with the office, one of the female warders took a shine to me, winking and calling me sweetheart as she stapled my wallet and car keys into an envelope. “Do I need a slip?” I asked her. “No, sweetie”, she said with another wink and coy smile, “I know you.”
Feeling hard-done-by as the last few people in the waiting room, our visitee’s name (nom de plume and all) was announced by another portly guard in a woolly hat, and we were led through to a narrow room with tiny glass panels, separated with plywood and with a single stool in front of them.
And then there he was, eyes wide and eagerly smiling into the first friendly faces he’d seen in a week. After all the huffing and teeth-gnashing, the visit went like a shot. Lee and I took turns to press our hands against the glass and wish him love and strength and try and crack jokes. He was staying positive, he told me, knowing that he had been doing well outside had kept him going, and he was determined to get back out soon. M, who had managed to blag his way all the way through to the end, despite being the self-appointed one-too-many, was eventually hauled out by the guards who stood wagging their fingers patronisingly at him (he stood his ground, semi-triumphantly).
As Lee ran through a piece of business with him through the glass, the bobble-hatted Member came and shook my firmly by the hand and stared at me with an unnerving intensity. He wanted to know where I lived (in more detail than I was comfortable admitting), what my ‘programme’ was about and then, when I told him, tried to get my phone number and told me he could come to town to meet me.
He looked me up and down and asked me if clothes were cheaper in the UK. I tried to deflect the intensity of his questioning by asking him, if I had magazines delivered to Pollsmoor, would he distribute them for me. “No”, he said, and wandered off. And next moment they were banging on the walls and we were waving goodbye, back out into the cold Cape Town afternoon where the rain had just about given up.
As we left, the Members were milling about munching crisps, white rolls, drinking bottles of fizzy orange. I remarked to M how they were all quite, well, overweight. “It’s because they’re lazy and they don’t do anything all day”, he told me. All through the course of the day, he had chatted , seemingly cheerfully, to various Members in Xhosa. “They expect respect,” he told me, “but they don’t give it. And they don’t care. Today I’m telling them that they can’t do that anymore because I’m from the outside. I’m free.”
Along with a grandmother with walking stick – who subsequently struggled to step into the vehicle for the final minibus taxi ride back to the front gate – we were the last ones to leave. It was almost 2pm.
While we waited, a guard emerged and started throwing pieces of bread to three white ducks who were waddling towards the entrance to the visiting room. We wandered towards the Medium B gatehouse to try and usher the half-asleep Members to send for our transport. I was still holding the books I’d brought to keep our friend occupied. They weren’t allowed in because they weren’t about God.