Every now and then I get to experience some really thought changing things. Whether its discovering a new way of working with chocolate that Heston Blumenthal has dreamed up in his crazy mind or meeting an interesting person who challenges my thinking. Sometimes just getting to visit a beautiful part of our country can also get my ideas on things racing. One of those thought changing experiences was spending almost 3 months going into and interacting with prisoners at Modderbee Correctional Facility in 2012.
I’ll openly admit I walked into the prison with preconceived ideas as to what it would be like and how the prisoners would look and behave. As much as some of us might deny it, television and media play a huge role in making us believe how certain places will be before we actually see them for ourselves. I get to see this more so in my industry when dealing with guests from other countries who ask questions about our food and our way of living. “Do you have elephants in the area you grew up in?”, I was once asked, even though I had just told the person that I grew up in an urban environment. Another area of my work where I see it a lot is with young chefs who have watched too much BBC Food or the Food Channel. They have this notion that the chef industry is glamorous and come with over-elaborate recipes and dish ideas that are all wonderful in principle but in a busy restaurant with 100 guests are near impossible to achieve. A lot of newly qualified chefs tend to quit the industry within the first 3 years after realising its more hard work and man hours than glamour and prestige.
Anyway, so there I was, walking down a long corridor after going through 4 metal gates and 4 guards at each. The keys in a prison aren’t like the keys you get at home. They’re huge and robust. The key hole itself is probably as large as my thumb. The keys are chained to the guard on duty’s belt and only they can unlock certain doors and gates. If they’ve gone on a toilet break they have to inform another guard or you just have to stand at the gate and wait for them to return. The flow of people and equipment is strictly monitored. i was told by one of the correctional officers that at the end of the day they actually physically count every single prisoner. The prisoners stand in single file in long rows according to their various cell numbers and they are counted. Each prisoner has an identity card and a prisoner number. These are verified against a list that has been drawn up for the day. If by the end of the count the numbers on the list don’t match with the numbers of the physical count they start from scratch and re-count everyone. The day shift staff are not allowed to leave the premises until they’ve correlated the physical head count to the list. 99% of the time the numbers match but apparently there’s been a few times when they didn’t. Even after re-counting all 5000 prisoners 10 times over. It turned out that the prisoner in question had snuck into the roof above the toilets in the education section. He stayed there for 3 days. I can only assume in hopes of sneaking out and escaping. The way prison walls and ceilings are built is in such a way that getting out and over them is practically impossible. Even at night they are too high to climb and are constantly lit with lights. There outside area of the prison has double fencing and at each corner of the prison ground there are tall watch towers that 3 guards are always manning. The only way to escape would be with inside help or something really cunning.
And cunning is what it took a few years ago when 3 prisoners did escape. In the prison the way things work is like a miniature self-sustaining community. There is a laundromat, a kitchen, a mechanic area, brick work, farm, hospital, church, sport section…and although all managed by prison officials they are staffed with prisoners. Even the IT and computer repair is done by inmates. They are remunerated in cash…but the cash only works inside the prison, its useless outside the prison walls. The cash is then used by the prisoners to buy toiletries, extra food, clothing and whatever else is available from within the prison walls. So what these 3 prisoners did a few years ago was somehow get hold of certain pieces of brown material over the years. The warders and prison officials all wear brown. They managed to sew the material into uniforms that looked similar to the uniforms worn by officials. They chose a time when they knew a lot of newly trained warders would be entering the prison and wouldn’t be familiar with faces and routines. As simple as that, they calmly strolled out the prison and out the gates without even being questioned. They were soon caught after a man hunt though but after hearing about the story I was told to be 100% on my guard at all times. I was not allowed to give the inmates my contact information nor share any personal info about myself or my life and routines.
After turning through another, less-daunting gate we made our way down one last passage. To the left was a long row of glass windows that opened out onto a long grass-less gap between this section of the prison the one next to it. To the right was where all the action was. Passing door after door I asked my host, Mr Madonsela, what all the noise was about. We were walking passed the prison cells and the food halls. During the day the inmates who don’t “work” basically hang around reading, playing football, singing…sometimes even creating their own theatrical plays. Constantly looking for ways to get their minds of their current situation. One thing I was to learn in my 10 weeks at Modderbee was that being softly spoken or quiet in a prison is a foreign thing. Everyone seems to shout when talking. There’s noise everywhere, banging of gates being locked, keys clanging as guards walk up and down, trolleys being wheeled from the main kitchen to the food halls, soccer balls hitting walls, cleaners scrubbing floors, singing…noise everywhere. As I mentioned in Part One, prison officials don’t carry weapons. During my first week as I walked down the corridor I’d remember this all the time, for some reason. That at anytime something could happen but I soon came to realise that the hierarchy of discipline is respected. As weird and strange as it may seem for 5000 inmates to be controlled by about 100 warders it works. They are also very respectful, when they’d see me coming down the corridor they’d move to the side and greet me “good morning sir” as I walked past. Like I said above, sometimes television builds this image of what to expect in places like these.
On the floor of the prison, through the long corridors, there was a long yellow line right down the middle. I asked Mr Madonsela what the line was for out of curiosity’s sake. I was surprised to hear that it was a segregation line. Inmates were to walk to the left of the line whilst officials to the right. After more interrogation he explained to me that this was to prevent any chance of officials being pick-pocketed or being targeted whilst walking down the corridor with inmates. Apparently prison gangs use the stabbing of prison officials as a rite of passage into senior positions within the gang. Although officials don’t carry weapons they are constantly in danger. If attacked they are left vulnerable, simple things like the yellow line down the corridor are actually there for a reason. I asked Mr Madonsela what would happen if he was attacked, he says within 5 minutes the rest of the prison warders will be there and will arrive with riot gear and weapons. They have drills and procedures for situations like that. They rely on each other to protect each other.
We finally made it to the last door I’d need to knock on to get to the education centre that would be my domain for 10 weeks. The principal or head mistress of the education centre is a short lady called MaMokete. I was to get to know her well. We did the usual pleasantries and greetings and I was shown to my classroom. The education centre itself is very much like a normal school. A long rectangular building with classes on either side. The classroom itself had everything a normal classroom would have. I was told I’d be assigned 16 inmates who had been selected to be trained as chefs. For 10 weeks it would me, them, this classroom, the kitchen…and a mountain of files, funny debates and sharp knives…