Yesterday, we traveled to Constitution Hill, the former site of Old Fort Prison where Nelson Mandela was held prior to transfer to Robben Island, and the current site of the South African Constitutional Court. Parts of the prison are still standing, although they are no longer active and instead act as a tourist attraction. We toured through both the men’s and women’s prison buildings for an afternoon.
Many of the buildings had been left, we were told, as a reminder of the horrible South African history of apartheid. The guide took us through the buildings, now full of exhibits with photos, descriptions, artifacts, works of art, and TV screens playing accounts by individuals actually held in the prison while it was open (until the early 1990s).
At first glance, the prisons looked very similar to some of the older prisons we have in the United States – stone or brick exterior, iron bars, barren courtyards that turn to mud with weather and the pounding of so many feet.
The insides are concrete with large wings for the “general population” inmates, and cell blocks for inmates in solitary confinement…also known as “the hole.” In some US prisons, they even have two levels of confinement – the “baby hole” and the “big hole” – depending on just how badly the inmate was behaving or the level of protection they needed (solitary is often used as protective custody for vulnerable or targeted inmates).
In this women’s prison, both the “baby” and the “big” hole (the South African versions) were in the same cell block, but the cell size was smaller for some individuals unlucky enough to be in the “big” hole. Oh the irony…
In the men’s prison, solitary confinement was a separate building off of the central, outside courtyard. This made the cells incredibly hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the cells were no more than 4×8 (the size of the women’s prison “big hole” as well) with only one tiny window in the door and a three-slatted vent above the door. One cell at the end caught my eye because it had a door with bars instead of a solid wooden one like the others. I was told that cell was for the inmates who went crazy from being left in solitary confinement for “three or four months at a time.” All of the other people in my group gasped, but little do they know, in the Louisiana State Prison at Angola in the United States, three men have spent a combined total of almost 100 years in solitary confinement similar to this…two are still there.
Ok, so this prison once housed Gandhi (in his very early days) and, of course, Mandela. But there were too many similarities to the United States prisons to ignore – the trading or selling of new inmates by prisons “gangs,” the sanitation issues, the poor diet, and the invasive strip searches (complete with yes, you guessed it – an anal cavity inspection). Again and again, these shocked the law students in my group, while the practicing attorneys all looked at each other mouthing the likes of “I’ve had clients in places like this…”
We thought thought that…until we came to a placard that reminded us that over 90% of the residents of the Old Fort Prison were only incarcerated because they were black, or had advocated with or befriended blacks. No, we don’t do that in the US… Not directly anyway.
On the outside of the Constitutional Court, on the site of the Old Fort Prison, they have written “constitutional court” in all of the official languages of South Africa. They have built the new court, which has power similar to our United States Supreme Court as the final arbiter of the Constitution, with the bricks of many of the Old Fort Prison buildings. The guide told us it was their way of saying that a country can move forward and rebuild from the wreckage of a terrible past. As an attorney, I have been in so many prisons and jails in the United States – in the visiting rooms, the cell blocks, the hospital wings – and I came to South Africa quite sure that WE, the United States, are surely more superior in the way that we treat people than the third world icon of apartheid. I was wrong in more ways than one – the two countries have similar issues – and I’m hoping that the South African approach to building the new from rubble or experiences of the old is one I can take back home with me.