Health Effects of the Living Conditions in the Old Fort Prison complex at Constitution Hill

Kianna Bermudez
January 21, 2016

Today, we visited Constitution Hill and went on a guided tour through what used to be the Old Fort prison complex, Number Four, and areas that were later added, such as the isolation cells in Emakhulukuthu, and the Women’s Prison. The prisoners ranged from men and women who had simply broken pass laws to common criminals and political prisoners. Although this prison is notorious for the treacherous living conditions and harsh treatment that the prisoners endured while there, what affected me the most was considering both the physical and mental aftereffects caused by the living conditions and mistreatment that the prisoners must have had to live with, if and when released from the prison.
When first walking into the area that is Number Four, the first plaque I noticed read: “The prison was a health hazard. Over the years, there were outbreaks of diseases… Hospital facilities were inadequate”. This plaque set the stage for me, yet could not prepare me for the gruesome mistreatment that I was about to learn about. One of the most powerful moments in the museum prison was when I learned of how doctors at times aided in the abuse. Particularly, there was one account of how a woman fell and broke her hip, the doctor refused to see her in her cell, so she was forced to stand in line with a broken hip. A similar story of a woman miscarrying also hit me hard, as I cannot imagine losing a child in such terrible conditions and then having no doctor to assist me. Also, at times doctors were asked to be present at lashings and beatings to ensure that the prisoner would not die due to the abuse. Seeing how doctors played such a crucial role in aiding and allowing the abuse was very bizarre to me and made me realize that I had to change my perspective on my preconceived notions and stereotypes.
As a part of the Zulu group, our research focused on health disparities and the difference in health benefits between the different racial categories. As noted during the tour, there was a clear difference in treatment between whites and non-whites. As we saw in Cell Six, white women lived rather comfortably in their cells, even to the point where some women compared it to a hotel stay. Not only were their living facilities different, but even the food was more favorable for whites. Whites’ food was essentially restaurant food, while non-whites ate raw, rotten food with little nutritional value. This unequal treatment between whites and non-whites served to perpetuate the oppression of non-whites even in a place where most people are subjected to mistreatment.
In regards to physical health hazards, the entire prison embodied what a human should never have to endure. The facilities were small and overcrowded, which aided in the spread of diseases such as Enteric Fever and Typhoid. The blankets were covered in lice, the toilets were directly in their sleeping area, toilets were also near the eating area and were exposed, causing not only a sanitation issue, but also further humiliation. In regards to food, their plates were cleaned every three months, causing a build up of grime and rotted food, although the food they received was already raw and rotten. Those who stayed in isolation cells were forced to survive on only rice water and dirty water as sustenance. The prisoners did not even get to enjoy the simplicity of a shower. There were only eight showers for 2,027 prisoners, and they were limited to 30 minutes of showering time for all of the prisoners. Not only did these conditions aid to the deterioration of the prisoner’s health, but it also caused prisoners to feel a level of shame and to essentially lose their humanity. Prisoners were not treated as humans, yet were mistreated to a level that is difficult for me to conceptualize and understand how humans felt the need to subjugate fellow humans so drastically.
Physical health was not the only aspect of health that was effected. Mental health was also largely damaged through imprisonment at the Old Fort prison. A quote that stood out to me that I read as we were leaving Number Four was “Number Four was designed to punish, not rehabilitate. For the prison to function, it relied on violence. Warders used violence to maintain control. Prisoners used violence to gain power.” This struggle for power was essentially the driving force for the mistreatment and subjugation that caused prisoners to deteriorate mentally. A great example of this are the isolation cells that held political prisoners, which only contained two buckets (one for water and one as a toilet) and was subject to flooding. These cells were pitch black and the prisoners were only given one hour outside of the cell a day. I had the experience of standing in one of these cells, and the eerie feeling is something I cannot fully explain. All prisoners were also grouped together, there was no formal separation between gang members, political prisoners, or common prisoners. As we discussed in class, this could be psychologically damaging to these prisoners, especially with the dynamics that could arise in regards to power. Prisoners also often joined gangs to avoid being isolated or victimized, which further contributed to the psychological effects that could lead to a deterioration in mental health. Due to this, prisoners often experienced violence, rape, and other forms of abuse and neglect from workers and one another.
Through our visit to the Old Fort prison complex and Number Four, I was able to directly see how the apartheid and its effects on treatment of different races directly affected the health of prisoners. Due to overcrowding, physical and mental abuse, unsanitary conditions, and malnutrition, prisoners suffered physical and mental instability that could last long after their release, or even a lifetime. In thinking of prisons in the present day in the United States, how does the mistreatment at this prison compare to this mistreatment within the criminal justice system throughout the world?


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