On the evening of 22 June 2003, Eric* killed his wife. He was sentenced to 12 years in South African prison. He spent a total of six years and one month behind bars; convicted in May 2007 and released in July 2013. This is his story.


Eric spent R1.5 million in legal fees during his trial and time in prison. The final trial cost him R300,000 and he spent R100,000 on an appeal to the court and another R150,000 on correctional supervision. Eric’s case was postponed 14 times during the four years he spent awaiting trial. Each time the case got postponed he had to shell out R5000.

Clinical psychologist Leonard Carr advised that Eric plead guilty and go on mitigating circumstances. Eric also consulted with Advocate Manny Wits who concurred with Carr’s recommendation. Eric’s attorney, on the other hand, convinced him to seek a second opinion and to plead not guilty for his crime. Eric insists that he wanted to plead guilty but was convinced by lawyers that he could get off with a plea of insanity. He admits, with regret, that he should never have taken their advice; not only did it cost him in lawyers’ fees but it also ultimately prolonged his time in prison.

Had Eric pleaded guilty, the case would have been closed in three months, his lawyer would have received a small fee and the state would have sentenced Eric to eight years in prison. Instead, Eric spent four years out on bail, battling the case in court and racking up enormous sums in lawyers’ fees. He ended up with a 12-year sentence. Eric recalls with a flash of anger that when he confronted his lawyer about this misjudgement, the man simply shrugged and said: “Well, you win some, you lose some”. Eric’s lawyer walked away with R90,000 for his time.

Those who can’t afford advocates will be assigned state lawyers. They’ll likely be convinced to plead guilty, no matter what. Courts prefer it when a suspect pleads guilty because there is no need for cross examination, judges and state advocates that can cost tens of thousands of Rands every day – the less use of these expensive resources, the better. The only reason a person should plead not guilty is if they have irrefutable evidence of their innocence.

The start and end time for visits differs from one Correctional Centre to another based on the Centre’s Institutional Orders and according to the security classification of the offender. Visitors are rigorously searched and asked to produce an ID or passport and the prison number for the offender they’re there to see. As Karen puts it: “The search is a major personal violation; they’re not shy to properly feel you up.” Prisoners are released in batches for their visits so sometimes visitors wait hours to see an inmate. In maximum security, visits are 30 minutes long – in Medium, they’re 60 minutes. Cars leaving prison grounds are searched before being let out.

Karen describes visiting her brother in Leeuwkop Medium Prison: “We could sit opposite each other on bus-like benches – so close that our knees interlocked. I’ve seen people practically engaged in conjugal visits, right next to where we were sitting. You couldn’t take anything with you, really – we could take in cigarettes and a lighter; everything else had to be put away in lockers before you go into the waiting area. I would bring a memory stick in my pocket. When the warders searched me, it felt like a lighter so they never suspected anything.

We would put movies, series and music on it for Eric – he was allowed a computer because he was studying. We’d also tightly roll up R20 notes and put them inside the cigarette box to give to him. Because we sat so close together in visitation, it was easy to pass over the memory stick and money under our knees.”

For inmates, visits are a respite from the monotony and strictures of prison life. They also provide a glimpse of the world beyond the walls. Often, it is seen to be the only thing you have to look forward to when you are a prisoner.

The prison is meant to supply prisoners with shoes and orange overalls. Prisons regularly do not have the funding to be able to supply shoes to every prisoner. Some of the shoes are so badly made they’re hardly wearable, leading to blisters and deformity after prolonged use. “You’ll try getting hold of a decent pair and boiling them in hot water for a few days to make them soft and wearable,” says Eric. He eventually smuggled in a pair of Cats; they looked reasonably like prison shoes and he rarely got into trouble wearing them.

There’s a loose rule that you can wear sneakers when you’re doing sport or walking around your unit, but you cannot go to your visits or into the administration buildings in civilian shoes. If you have the wrong shoes on you’ll get turned back and have your scheduled visit denied.

When Eric was at Leeuwkop, the prison rules were enforced in waves: When a new warder arrived on the block he would invariably have something to prove. This head warder might be focussed on prison shoes and so the culture of the prison would change accordingly and comfortable prison shoes would become a commodity. The next head warder might focus on phone calls and so the new commodity would be buying a space in the phone booth queue.

In Maximum inmates are only allowed out for one hour a day, the rest of the time they’re locked up. Cells open up at around 7am. At night, the warders “master” the prisoners – in other words, lock them inside their cells after doing a head count. In the morning, the prisoners are counted again and then “unmastered” and the cells opened.

Only once the warders have confirmed that the previous night’s tally matches the morning tally of prisoners do they open the cells and allow the prisoners out. If a prisoner goes missing, no one is allowed out until the inmate is found. “This happens more often that you would imagine, but mostly because of bad administration process,” says Eric, explaining that it’s hardly ever a case of a prisoner escaping and more often a simple miscount on the part of the warden. Figuring this mistake out sometimes takes hours and prisoners wait, locked up, until the error is corrected.

After all prisoners are accounted for they are sent off to breakfast. A certified dietitian has determined that a prisoner can survive on a certain number of calories per day and this, along with a very tight budget, informs the kind of food the prison serves. Morning meals consist of soft porridge or pap, and on occasions, Maltabella. Eric hardly ever ate the prison food; he smuggled in his own food: Cereal, French bread, toast. Sometimes his food would be confiscated and he would go without food that day.

Some prisoners were on special diets that allowed them to get fruit. Others, especially those with HIV and Aids, would require more protein so they were served raw eggs. The trouble is, inmates are not permitted to cook in their cells so there’s a risk of salmonella poisoning. Most prisoners got around this problem by boiling their eggs in kettles. Lunch was served between 12:30 and 1:00pm and consisted of either a piece of chicken, fish or two eggs. Three times a month prisoners would get beef, mostly in a stew. Beef is generally an expensive protein so was considered a rare treat. Some days inmates would just get cabbage and nothing else. At Leeuwkop, lunch sometimes consisted of grilled pork chops.

Eric had a contract with a warder to bring him what’s known as a “skufftin” – an ice-cream tub filled with different meat each week – sometimes beef stew, sometimes chicken fillets, sometimes pork. Eric payed R10 per day for his skufftin. He knew the man who ran the kitchen and he would sometimes get him to fry up some hake with egg and batter and get it delivered to his cell for lunch. “You could also buy a whole cooked chicken or a beef filet for R10 from the kitchen staff,” he relays with a smile.

Dinner consisted of six pieces of white bread served at 3pm when the prisoners were locked back in their cells for the night. Eric had an iron in his cell that he turned upside down and doctored so the iron plate would get hot enough to boil water, or fry food. Now and then his pot was confiscated and he’d have to buy it back or find another one for sale.

Sometimes he’d make a hotplate by connecting two wires to a stove spiral. This was risky because this would often short the electricity circuit for the entire prison block. If this happened in a big cell you’d have more chances of getting someone to put the electricity back on, but in a single cell, you could wait for days before anyone came to service the breaker. “In Leeuwkop, there was one prisoner who had a long stick and could reach the breaker board with it. When the lights went, it was his job to reach his stick out of his window and switch the electricity back on. When he moved, his cell remained empty for months because no one else wanted the responsibility of managing the electricity,” says Eric, laughing.

Eric recalls one Christmas when he and his friends had a four-course meal. They had a long table set up with hand-made tablecloths and smuggled cutlery. Eric arranged to smuggle in cold meats, salads, cakes, ice cream and roast beef. “You should have seen the warders and prisoners walking past with looks of pure jealousy on their faces!”

Antiretroviral medications are supplied for free in prisons, but sometimes the medication isn’t available due to orders not being placed in time or missed payments to the suppliers by the prison. Non-adherance is a problem as it not only opens the patient up to infection and reduces treatment efficacy but can lead to drug-resistant viral strains.

If the prison hasn’t paid the on-call doctor, there is no way for the prisoners to get proper care. When the doctor isn’t in, no matter what ailment prisoners have – from toothache to a cracked wrist – they will get Disprin and a glass of water and sent on their way. Dentistry in prison is something of a nightmare. There is no such thing as fillings or root canal or anaesthetic: “If you go in for toothache, your tooth will just be pulled out,” says Eric.

An inmate could choose whether to fight with the prison officers and attempt to convince them for a hospital pass, or just get their tooth pulled right then and there. Most chose the path of least resistance. Eric lost four teeth during his time in prison, chiefly due to shock and the adjustment to a poor diet. Zonderwater has a designated dentist room. A private dentist comes in once a week to check on the prisoners’ teeth, but this is rare and not the case in most prisons.

It’s in a prisoner’s best interest to behave well and not do anything that puts a target on his back. Eric recalls one young inmate who was there for raping a 70-year- old woman. He was convinced the act was consensual, had a poor attitude toward his crime and was aggressive toward other inmates. As a result, he was ostracised and bullied by the other prisoners, slapped and spat on, to the extent that he had to be moved to another prison. Eric says that if he had owned up to his crime, admitted to what he did, the other inmates would have treated him with more respect.

Eric believes the most important thing you can do with your time is to learn to take responsibility for what lead you to being in prison. He spent months feeling angry with himself and with the world and this, Eric says, will eat you up. “I brought myself here. The world didn’t bring me here. I made the shit so I must deal with it and make the best of it.”

Eric studied business management for three years through UNISA while at Leeuwkop. Any prisoner can study during their time, but must pay for it themselves. The benefits of studying include staying in a single cell to give you a modicum of peace and quiet. Invigilators visit the prisons during exams and facilitate assignments.

Eric says that in hindsight he should have taken up studying right away. As long as they can get funding, prisoners can complete high school and tertiary education, which is available through UNISA. There are limited cells dedicated to those who want to study. Of the 70 single cells, Eric says only half were dedicated to students. The other half were used as detention cells or for those with mental instability.

Most prisons have a choir and some kind of traditional dance group. There are also many church groups that get together on Sundays, but the most popular recreational activity in prison is soccer. There are no formal grounds to play on, just a concrete floor or hard sand.

These activities are driven by the inmates, not the prison or state. The prison authorities encourage these activities but seldom go above and beyond their mandate in order to provide equipment. Budget is a huge factor in determining what equipment is available

Eric explains why recreation was more pain than pleasure: “Zonderwater had a decent gym. At Leeuwkop, the soccer field was a tin shack that would get too hot to play in for more than ten minutes, and it would just hum. Sometimes the warders would open the running track in the morning but it was so inconsistent that it became a pain more than anything. Some days you go running and there’s guys spitting at your feet, or you run over old food. Because of the ants and cockroaches in the cells, you don’t want that stuff on your shoes. There’s never hot water in the showers so when you do go running it’s such a tedious process, it’s just not worth it.”

There are two opportunities to shower: An hour or so during lunch, and between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. Shuddering, Eric recalls shower time: “In winter it was horrible to shower. We would just boil hot water in our kettle and take a bucket of it to the shower cubicle and wash only what we needed to, so at least you felt like you were washed. Most people would get up very early in the morning to shower and then go back to bed.” Even when prisoners were allowed out for their one hour a day, there wasn’t much to do or look at. “The walls are so high you can’t see trees or grass; all you see is sky,” remembers Eric. “All we used to do was watch aeroplanes. That was our entertainment.”

Continue to part three here.

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