Prisoner Escapes

Correctional Services

13 May 2008
Chairperson: Mr D Bloem (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Correctional Services was called to give a detailed account of three recent prisoner escapes - the incident at Groote Schuur where a Correctional Services official was shot at and killed, the Qalakabusha escape when ten inmates escaped last year; and the recent escape from the Johannesburg prison of Mr Lacote, an awaiting trial inmate. The Committee was concerned that these occurred despite efforts to improve security.

The Department gave a detailed description of the incident at Groote Schuur. An inmate was taken to the hospital for treatment, and while being moved to another floor two unknown assailants, apparently trying to help him escape, had fired on the two officials and killed one. The inmate had been advised of his trip to the hospital and there were a number of side issues being investigated. However, at this stage there were civil claims and criminal cases pending, and thus the Chairperson, after questions had been asked, ruled that the questions need not be answered at this stage, but that a closed meeting would be held in due course to examine all the issues in detail. 

The incident at Qalakabusha involved the escape of ten inmates during visiting hours, at a time when there was also a major soccer match on, there was inadequate staffing and the electric fence had been deactivated. Investigations showed gross negligence, a culture of non compliance, lax procedures and policies and other worrying factors such as inmates being out of their cells for extended periods, and having access to two way radios. The escapees were recaptured and eight had been transferred to a maximum security centre. 21 officials were suspended, of whom 13 faced disciplinary action. Eight officials were dismissed, two acquitted and one demoted. Some investigations were ongoing. There had been several interventions, including upgrading of security systems. Questions raised by Members related to the circumstances, the worrying fact that apparently some managers were aware of plots to stage an escape but failed to pass on the information, the work that Public Works were doing to upgrade and the outstanding issues.

It was noted that in respect of the escape of awaiting trial detainee Lacote, the staff on duty were presented, by uniformed men, with what appeared on the face of it to be a valid warrant for transfer of the offender to the South African Police Services for further investigations.  He had duly been released into the custody of the uniformed men. Only later did it emerge that he had never been returned to custody. The Department of Correctional Service and the Police Services were working closely on the matter and the Chairperson, in response to a plea by the Commissioner, stated that no further details need be given at this stage as they might compromise the investigations, but that a full report would be given in due course. It was pointed out that some other erroneous releases had occurred on warrants, and it seemed that there was a new kind of fraud being perpetrated.

Meeting report


Department of Correctional Services (DCS) Briefing on recent escape incidents
The Chairperson welcomed the National Commissioner of Correctional Services, Mr Vernon Petersen, his delegation and Members of the Department of Home Affairs. He summarised that the purpose of the meeting was to examine recent escapes, being the incident at Groote Schuur where a DCS official was shot and killed; the Qalakabusha escape of ten inmates escaped last year; and the recent escape from the Johannesburg prison of Mr Lacote, an awaiting trial inmate. He noted that one of the major functions of correctional service facilities was to protect the public through safe custody of those who had to serve sentences. The community could not regard the Department of Correctional Services as successful if it could not prevent escapes such as these. Over the last three years the Committee had heard reports of a number of escapes, which raised questions as to whether they were genuine escapes or whether there had been assistance and collusion from the Department. The Committee was impatient with briefings, endless investigations and explanations that did not get to the heart of the problem. Those escaping had been dangerous or their crimes were serious.

Comm Vernon Petersen, National Commissioner of Correctional Services, noted that the fact that these three events were all before the Portfolio Committee in one session was of concern and exposed “the soft underbelly” of the DCS. The Chairperson had asked for an open and honest account of the facts. This was quite difficult for various reasons. The DCS might be asked to report on a matter that was still under investigation and this placed serious limits on the department’s accountability. In addition they had to be cautious not to  compromise what was in the best interests of the State and its people in matters of security. In other cases there might be civil actions pending – such as in the Groote Schuur incident, so some of the information was still sub judice. Having said that, the DCS did accept that the Committee was entitled to information but might have to ask indulgence with some matters.

The DCS was a security institution operating within a situation of ongoing risk. Things could and did go wrong. The DCS was not immune to the phenomenon of organised crime that targeted correctional centres. The contexts were also important; each management area within DCS had its own characteristics. Certain things were more likely to happen at some centres not only because of the type of people accommodated, but also because of other historical factors including personnel, infrastructure and purpose of the centre.
A number of initiatives had been undertaken by DCS recently and the number of serious escapes had reduced over the years. That was cold comfort to DCS when an escape, especially from a maximum facility, happened. DCS was aware, because of their work on rehabilitation, of the possibility of people escaping from work teams, and while being escorted to hospitals and courts. Despite efforts to improve security through installing all kinds of equipment there were still these unfortunate events. Escape statistics over the last five years clearly showed the trend of awaiting trial inmates being classified generally as maximum security inmates.

DCS’s commitment to dealing with the issue of providing safe custody was a serious one. Because they were confronted with organised crime DCS worked closely with their partners in the South African Police Services (SAPS) Intelligence directorate as well as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA)to assess their vulnerability. DCS would shortly give their findings on their vulnerability assessments, with a view to again  looking at measures to confront organised crime operating from within the DCS.

Mr Petersen said that the concerns of DCS not only centred on the actual escape from what was supposed to be safe custody, but also on others who suffered the consequences. The honest, hard working correctional service officials must depend to a large measure on absolute trust of their colleagues. When that  trust was broken through allegations or proof of collusion in escapes that hit at the heart of the DCS. Worse, there was the risk of death of DCS officials. Mr Horn had lost his life during the Groote Schuur incident and those close to him had been traumatised.

Groote Schuur Incident briefing
Commissioner James Smallberger, DCS, said that this incident happened on 14 March 2005 and the investigating team was appointed on 17 March. They concluded their investigation on 9 May 2005 and the final decision was taken on 24 June 2005

The findings were that DCS was admitting offenders from court, specifically awaiting trial detainees (ATDs). , Management had been informed that offender Luke was a high risk offender. A team leader, Mr Mark Hendricks, was consulted by the Head of the Centre and was assigned to undertake the escort of this offender. When the offender had been arrested, he had been shot, and he had been incarcerated at the hospital section when imprisoned, then moved to a single cell. He had an appointment on 14 March at the hospital in relation to his injuries and he was aware of this. On arrival at the hospital, one of the team reported to reception and was given a number of 486 in the queue. When Mr Hendricks, Mr Horn and the offender were on their way to J floor, the two officials were shot at before they had a chance to take out their firearms. It was alleged that assailants used an AK47 rifle. The team leader then returned fire, and, even though shot, lay on the offender to prevent his escape. Part of the problem here was identified as the admission of awaiting trial detainees with inadequate information on their committal warrant that indicated the risks. The disciplinary and remedial actions taken were outlined. Subsequent to this a Service Level Agreement (SLA) was drawn up, with specific focus on security measures, spelling out the responsibility of the Department of Health towards Correctional Services, and spelling out responsibility for DCS officials in terms of the management and securing of appointments. 

Criminal charges were instituted by SAPS and this case was still ongoing. The wife of the late Mr Horn, Mr Hendricks and Mr le Roux had laid civil claims against the DCS and these were still pending. The injuries sustained on duty had been referred to the Compensation Commissioner, and there were still some outstanding issues. 

Ms S Seaton (IFP) asked what were the administrative improvements made at the institution. She noted that the investigation was concluded in June 2005 yet the Committee, despite asking for reports, was constantly told that it was still under investigation. She wanted to know why it took so long to give feedback. She noted that the  findings had included that the DCS officials had bullet-proof vests but were not wearing them. She had heard that it was standard practice not to wear them, why there were no standard regulations then, and whether it was now obligatory for DCS officials to wear these vests. She was also given to understand that DCS members had continuously asked for bullet-proof vehicles, and she asked if anything had been done to ensure that these were used to escort ATDs to prison.

Ms Seaton then noted that officials found responsible were given written warnings. She asked what exactly were the transgressions, why the warnings only were given and why they had not been charged. She had been told that one member passed away during the investigation, but had then heard that this was in fact the Chair of the Disciplinary Committee and not one of the DCS officials. She asked whether, and when, any refresher courses were given, as there had been requests for such courses. She finally asked where offender Luke was at the present time; she thought he might be at Goodwood, which was not a maximum-security prison. In regard to the criminal charges, she asked if these were against DCS officials, or others. The Committee needed more information on the civil claims. There were a number of issues of concern.

Mr S Mahote (ANC) expressed disappointment that the staff from Pollsmoor did not attend the meeting.
He concurred that the Committee needed to know exactly what had been the disciplinary charges and action taken.

Mr Mahote asked how far was the Department on vetting its officials.

Mr Mahote noted Mr Smallberger’s comment that not enough information was being sent through to DCS about ATDs, and asked what had been done and whether there was any follow up.

Mr Mahote was aware of the external investigations that sometimes created a problem, but asked whether there was any mechanism to ensure that the external investigations would not drag on as there was a need for a timeous and comprehensive report.

Mr Mahote asked who conducted the refresher courses.

Ms L Chikunga (ANC) referred to the fact that the files of high profile offenders were marked in red when they were admitted to hospital. She asked what was an official supposed to do with that offender, and whether the markings were universally known across the departments.

Ms Seaton asked if it was true that the police file on this matter had disappeared, and, if so, how this could happen. She asked also that a DCS member may have given information to the offender that facilitated the attempt at escape and she asked if there had been disciplinary investigation and was any action taken. 

Mr E Xolo (ANC) noted that unknown assailants had attacked security members in reception, and then attacked Mr Horn and Hendricks. He asked if any steps had been taken then to have them arrested and avoid any danger to hospital officials or the public. He asked also if there had been any findings of negligence on the part of the DCS officials in regard to dangerous ATDs.

Commissioner Petersen said that some of the questions were causing difficulty; he noted that the civil claim was still pending and one of the claimants, Mark Hendricks, was present at the meeting.

The Chairperson asked Mr Hendricks to go outside so the Committee could express themselves freely.

Commissioner Petersen continued that the matter was still with top management and that he would like to consult with his team. The Chairperson also noted that he wished to consult with Members in a closed meeting.

Commissioner Petersen then explained he did not have the benefit of his legal advisors, but although he accepted that the Department had to account, the matter was sub judice. He asked the Chairperson to make a ruling.
Ms Seaton asked for clarity whether the contracts between the DCS and its officials allowed for civil action..

The Commissioner stated it was the basic constitutional right of any citizen to take anyone to court, and staff and others were suing DCS on an ongoing basis.

The Chairperson asked what was the position on the other two presentations before making a ruling.

Comm Petersen responded that the Johannesburg matter was a bit more straightforward and information was before the Committee in the form of a presentation. He could present, but would have a problem in responding to some direct questions. In the Lacote matter the investigation hinged on re-arresting and re-detaining Mr Lacote, the offender. He would not like to divulge information at this stage that could compromise that or the investigation. DCS was keen to account but there would be some constraint on their ability to engage given the sensitive nature of that investigation too.

Comm Petersen then added that he would be able to talk to the issues in relation to Qalakabusha, but would also be prepared to come back with the more pertinent information as this would not have a direct bearing on disciplinary cases outstanding. There were some issues with organised crime syndicates that were being pursued in the Qalakabusha / Empangeni area, but he could indicate that. 

The Chairperson responded that it was clear that Members felt that there may have been a cover up in respect of the Groote Schuur incident, and felt strongly that they must have a briefing in a closed meeting to get all the facts. In respect of the Lacote incident, he agreed that the investigation should not be compromised; the public would like to see him arrested. Comm Petersen had agreed that he would be able to give a presentation on the Qalakabusha incident, but once again, the Committee could ask for a closed meeting as total openness was required.

The Chairperson therefore ruled that another closed meeting would be organised for a completely frank and comprehensive briefing on the Groote Schuur incident, where the members would be free to ask questions. This would examine the external and the internal investigation, and would also examine the alleged disappearance of the file. The Commissioner should give a briefing only, but no questions would be asked, on the Lacote incident. A report should be given on the Qalakabusha incident. .

Comm Petersen said that it was unfortunate that these types of incidents would appear to imply cover-up, and if not subjected to scrutiny would always have that implication. He admitted that there was collusion with some security breaches but as these were totally intolerable in a security institution they had to be exposed;

Qalakabusha Incident Briefing
Comm Nkosinathi Nhleko, Regional Commissioner for KwaZulu-Natal, DCS, presented a report to address the incident, the interventions and the progress. He noted that it was important to understand the context. Before the escape there were incidents that prompted the Regional Manager to decide to do a comprehensive security threat analysis, concentrating on the external factors.

On 4 August 2007 ten inmates escaped from Qalakabusha Correctional Centre. This escape took place during the visitation period when there was quite a lot of movement in and out, during the screening of a  large match between Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, and at a time when there was weekend staffing. In addition, the electric fence had been deactivated at the time because it was faulty and continuously triggered through humidity and wind factors. That was now being attended to.

The key interventions included setting up a joint task team between the SAPS and DCS in terms of tracking and tracing the whereabouts of those inmates, commencement of an investigation on 8 August, and suspension of 18 officials on suspicion of gross negligence and possible collusion with inmates. The investigations then revealed other facts that implicated other officials. The total number investigated increased to 21. There was also work done with the NIA. 

The findings showed gross negligence and a culture of non compliance, including lax correctional procedures and policies. Although there were external factors in the actual escape, this had been facilitated by internal factors. Information relating to the proposed escape was known but it was not communicated to the Centre Management and the authority in charge of the centre. That in itself was a problem, since this hindered the ability of DCS to thwart the planned escape. There had been lack of management and supervisory control over inmates and officials on the day in question. This was exacerbated by the external factors of the match, visitors, weekend staff and the deactivation of the fence.

The main control room and the support control rooms were fully operational on the day in question. Qalakabusha was a medium security unit, but, because there had been changes in the character of the offender population and criminality, it was also housing maximum offenders. There was only one centre in Kwazulu Natal that was a maximum security centre. There were areas that were “blind spots”.

All ten escapees had been recaptured; two of them were shot at during the rearrest, and eight had been transferred to C-Max Correctional Facility.

The investigation report also identified inadequacies in terms of the number or level of staffing for the offender population, and DCS was investigating how to overcome this. The centre experienced poor work ethics in staff, a poor attitude towards policies and procedures and a lack of enforcing discipline by line managers.

As a result of the investigation, 21 officials were suspended, but some suspensions were lifted. 13 officials had to face disciplinary action and 11 disciplinary cases had been finalised. Of these, 8 officials were dismissed, 2 were acquitted, and 1 was demoted. Management had to address the findings and the staffing. Area management was drawn in to have a hands on approach in the day to day running. The work with SAPS was intensified to institute criminal investigations against certain officials. There were currently three criminal investigations pending. There had been improved efforts around communication and safety. Improved administrative measures were implemented with regard to movement control of offenders. The DCS implemented a control register and visitors were now expected to produce identity. There were  improved security procedures at the entrance gate.

200 maximum security inmates were transferred to other centres within the region, and there was investigation ongoing into the cases of 1 000 other offenders from other centres.

It was noted that DCS had to intensify their engagement with the Department of Public Works (DPW) and replace of the diamond mesh in the passages with steel bars. The DPW Repair and Maintenance Programme allocated amounts to improve the security infrastructures, including the mesh and fence. R8.3 million was put aside for improving the overall security system and the electronic sensor, and another R8.2 million for the control rooms. R851 000 was allocated for security lighting and X-ray machines and metal detectors, and for intercom and public address systems. Some of the offenders were found to have been carrying two-way radios to control visits and pass on information. R607 000 was allocated for a proper internal system of control at one point. A fire detection system was installed at a cost of R170 000.

Commissioner Petersen said when studying reports of the circumstances under which this escape took place it was very disconcerting to note that for months prior to the escape, some levels of management had been aware of a planned escape. It irked him that between Qalakabusha, the Regional Office and Head Office there was an enormous amount of red tape to get the inmates transferred.  The Regional Commissioner had said there were no other maximum-security facilities, so it was very worrying to see the lack of responsiveness and lack of understanding of urgency on the part of managers. Whilst waiting on the final decision to transfer, quite clearly there was an obligation on the part of management to make sure that alternative ways were found to limit ways of escape. Managers had to be held to account. The Departmental Investigation Unit had made recommendations that some managers should be charged and held accountable.

Comm Petersen said that, given this report and more recently the circumstances surrounding the multiple escape from C Max, whose findings had been similar, he could certainly appreciate the Members’ sense that there was collusion. Intelligence was being gathered and inmates were watching every move and should not be underestimated. Clearly there was a lack of control and it was very damning for a security establishment when there was no confidence that could be placed in control and accountability of the staff. It was now also clear that the facilities were most vulnerable over weekends, and sufficient staff levels had been an issue.

The Chairperson thanked the Commissioner for his straightforward and honest report.
The Chairperson noted that there was a Pirates and Chiefs match also on the day when the Mathe escape happened. He was concerned that they moved through all gates without hindrance, and had managed to cut diamond mesh and wire fence. When inmates were moving up and down with two-way radios, this could hardly be called a prison; the inmates seemed to be running the place and calling visitors to help them escape. It was a very serious matter that very dangerous, life sentence prisoners were controlling the radio. The Committee had also noted from the CCTV video that people were greeting officials when they moved out.

Mr J Selfe (DA) said it seemed to him that there had been two previous attempts to assist in escape of these people and it seemed clear that the incident was brewing. He asked what capacity did the Department have internally for acquiring and sharing intelligence around these sort of matters.

Mr Selfe was delighted to hear about the improved infrastructure to prevent escapes. However, at the end of the day, whatever equipment was put in place was operated by individuals. He asked to what extent officials working in the facilities, particularly maximum facilities, were subjected to continuous security assessments to ensure they were not the target of organised crime syndicates or were being bribed.

The Chairperson supported that comment. Mr Mahote had also raised the issue of security vetting. The DCS could spend millions but if the staff were not trustworthy all efforts would be futile. 

Ms Chikunga asked why the disciplinary steps against managers were taking so long to finalise, and why there was an apparent distinction between action against officials and managers.

Rev L Tolo (ANC) noted that he had been to this centre twice. On the last occasion he had actually had to ask the gate officials if they were not going to search the car, as they were playing cards.

Rev Tolo noted that the offenders were maximum security risk, but were apparently out of their cells for undetermined periods of time.

Rev Tolo expressed disappointment that the Committee always discussed escapes but never were told that those assisting the escapes were caught or sentenced. Previously all those colluding in helping people to leave the country were charged and imprisoned. He felt that petty thieves were being sent to prison, yet these offenders were more dangerous; they were merely suspended and could continue to do as they had done before and help others escape. He asked how many officials had been charged and sentenced. 

Mr Mahote asked for how long the security fence had been a problem, and how long did it take to fix.

The Commissioner responded to Mr Selfe that the DCS was not an intelligence-gathering organisation and did not necessarily have capacity to share information. However, when security information came to their attention there was protocol that required the responsible managers to communicate it across to their colleagues for a proper assessment and response.  In this instance there was an obligation on the part of the relevant managers to share the information with regional colleagues, who would then decide how they should intervene. This was an area of weakness the DCS had identified. DCS recently linked up with Department of Defence (DOD) to expose some of their senior managers to this more sophisticated security training. They relied also on their colleagues in Crime Intelligence and National Intelligence.

DCS had established its own vetting unit and the people employed in the vetting unit were trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); but the backlogs were so huge that it would take a number of years to catch up. IT was impossible to vet 40 000 members with the intensity that was required, so they would do some outsourcing, including integrity testing of a different kind.

DCS would have to look at their areas of weakness, and would also, in light of the 2010 events, need to look at how their vulnerability during soccer matches was addressed.

In respect of the managers, he noted that there were different managers. Some of the investigations pointed to certain managers who should have been charged for gross negligence, and in this case DCS decided to split the number of cases, depending on the types of issues being dealt with. Other managers might have managed to prolong the process, and two particular managers did try to prolong the case by calling for certain disciplinary processes. The separate investigation on management culpability was outside the investigation of the Regional Commissioner and still needed to be dealt with. He noted that until officials engaging in wrongdoing took the consequences of their actions there would be continued problems.
SAPS were dealing with matters of organised crime, the intelligence unit must be requested to pursue the cases vigorously. He hoped that SAPS could at some point explain how they prioritised, and why these never or seldom seemed to get to court. Disciplinary cases were faster; they also involved the onus of a balance of probability, not beyond reasonable doubt, which in itself required further testing of and reliance on colleagues in the DCS. He admitted that DCS was perhaps not doing enough to make sure that certain cases were pursued vigorously, and undertook to convey the concerns.

Commissioner Nhleko noted that the Report referred to disciplinary action taken against unit managers and the Acting Head of Centre when the escape took place. The cases against the senior managers were still being dealt with, on the basis that their conduct was being tested against what they should have done.

In respect of the inmates being out of their cells, Commissioner Nhleko said that this had only come to light during the investigation. Normally , over a weekend, a unit would be left more open. This did, however, speak to lack of supervisory and management control. DCS was now beginning to attend to those issues. DCS moved around unit managers to try and rectify that problem through ensuring the correct personnel were in place. Their approach was both disciplinary and corrective.

Comm Nhleko said that the fence had not yet been rectified; the problems were technical and were in the hands of DPW and should hopefully be attended to shortly. 

Comm Nhleko said that the Report did not come up with evidence that proved any collusion. There was breach of departmental policies and procedures. The two-way radios issue was not just an internal matter; but was part of the ongoing investigations by NIA and SAPS into criminal wrongdoing, which were also to establish whether there was deliberate non action, or negligence. In respect of the greeting of officials, the DCS would be using a dedicated agency to determine whether these evidenced collusion.

The Chairperson did not agree with the Commissioner that there was no collusion. If an inmate went out of the gate and greeted the official, this was suspicious, as effectively that person was not being prevented from going out.

Mr Tolo asked the Department to provide the Committee with the names of those people suspected of helped those ten inmates to escape.

Comm Petersen said he would ask DCS to undertake research on the number of cases where collusion was suspected, looking at reports over the years, the recommendations and the action taken. He confirmed that he would give the names once they had been found guilty, although he could not provide the names of suspects.

Escape of Awaiting Trial Detainee Jean Claude Lacote: Briefing
Adv Tozama Mqobi, Regional Commissioner for Gauteng, DCS, gave a brief account of this incident. He clarified that offender Lacote was an awaiting trial detainee at Johannesburg Med A. Because of the presumption of innocent until proven guilty, ATDs were entrusted to the care of DCS so that the police, whenever they needed to, could request release into the custody of SAPS while further investigations were performed.

Mr Lacote was charged on multiple fraud and forgery charges and was incarcerated as a ATD with DCS on 21 February. At the time there was a pending extradition application, which was to be heard in Pretoria Court (D) on 24 June. On 28 March a person who was believed to be a SAPS policeman presented a document that required them to release this particular offender. On the face of it, it was a valid SAP127. Mr Lacote was released to the policemen. Before doing so certain verification procedures were carried out, including making copies of their IDs, and noting registration numbers of vehicles that were used.

Prior to this, in early March, a complaint had been lodged by the French Embassy alleging assault by EST officials. When that complaint reached the investigators, in April, it was decided to follow up by calling in Mr Lacote. It was only then discovered that after being booked out to SAPS on 28 March he was never returned. The investigating officer had not been aware of the SAP127 document. Internal investigations were started and  a criminal case was opened. However, when calling for the file, it was discovered that documents were missing, which led DCS to the suspicion that this was an inside job. It was decided that SAPS would work closely with DCS, so a parallel investigation was running. The matter was still pending and at this stage he was unable to say whether there was negligence on the part of the officials who were on duty at the time. They were currently not on suspension.

This incident pointed to the fact that DCS had some lessons to learn, and the outcome had been to tighten up the levels of verification of SAPS and control of the documents. Johannesburg recently had a few other erroneous releases arising from release warrants apparently issued by officials of the court, so DCS were quite susceptible to a new kind of fraud.

Commissioner Petersen thanked the Chair for his ruling that at this stage he should not give further details. He was confident that, given the opportunity and space to do the full investigations, there would be a conclusive finding.

The Chairperson thanked Adv Mqobi for his frankness. He was pleased to see a change, under the leadership of Comm Petersen, in the way in which the DCS was dealing with programmes. It was a difficult area to deal with but he appreciated the attempts to be open and honest with the Committee. He thought it was strange that a supposed policeman would not have been investigated properly. He also commented that the managers would have to account fully.

The meeting was adjourned.



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