By Kotie Geldenhuys
When members from the 26 and 28 number gangs engaged in a battle during August 2018, it caused havoc at the Pollsmoor Correctional Centre. Mattresses were set alight to prevent correctional officials and the police from raiding a cell. Inmates barricaded the doors, attacked officials with boiling water and sticks and also threw liquid on the floor to keep them out. It was a chaotic situation, but finally the reaction team managed to break through and defuse the situation. After 58 inmates had been removed from the cell and transferred to the remand detection facility of Pollsmoor Correctional Centre, 13 self-made knives and eight cellphones were recovered from that cell. Almost a week later, fighting between and among the gangs flared up when a member of the 28s stabbed a fellow 28s gang member resulting in both being admitted to hospital. The following day gang members of the 26s ambushed eight members of the 28s, stabbing and assaulting them. On 19 August 2018, a gang leader from the 26s was assaulted, stabbed and robbed by his own gang (Francke, 2018).
Situations like these are not unique to South Africa as prison gangs are found across the world, creating havoc in correctional facilities. However, the Number gangs are unique to South Africa where the Number was formed in the late 1800s to protect mineworkers from police brutality. The laws of The Number constantly evolve and over time it has become more organised and structured. Today the Number gangs rule South African prisons and are notoriously ruthless and secretive. Charlton (2018) argues that due to the secrecy not much information is available about them and that the available information differs between researchers. This article will focus on research of prison gangs focusing on researchers including Jonny Steinberg and Ross Kemp, as well as information shared by inmates and wardens.
Gangs are a distinctive feature of South African Correctional Centres due to the way they operate, the fact that they have a nationwide organisational structure and because this phenomenon has historic roots. Gangs have structures, ranks and disciplinary codes that pre-date the South African Correctional Services (Nel, 2017). Although the Numbers gang is a prison gang, The Number is no longer limited to prison walls and are joining the drug and crime market on the outside (Charlton, 2018). Kaviani (2018) argues that this happened in the late 1980s when Cape Flats drug dealers started making heaps of cash through the Mandrax trade. Once incarcerated, the leaders of street gangs bought their way into The Number in order to bypass the gruesome rite of passage required to join. For a fee, gang leaders from the outside world would be protected once incarcerated without having to do much of the dirty work. On the outside, the drug lords have the money and on the inside The Number has the power. Drug lords promise Number gang members work on the outside upon their release which led to a massive explosion of violence on the Cape Flats (Kaviani, 2018).
What is a prison gang?
Charlton (2018) explains that a prison gang operates within the prison system as a self-maintaining criminal entity. The gang members usually consist of a select group of inmates, where there is an established code of conduct which governs the chain of command. Nel (2017) adds that the gangsters refer to themselves as “men of the number” and are organised in a hierarchically ordered quasi-military structure. Each gang has its own tradition and they use uniforms, tattoos, flags, salutes and other military paraphernalia. Minor gangs have been established and tend to grow in numbers as they operate, but then they quietly disappear. The most predominant prison gangs are the 28s, the 27s and the 26s which can be found in correctional facilities across South Africa. Skywalker (2014) notes that smaller gangs are still prevalent in correctional centres, but that their existence in South African correctional centres is part of an intricate symbiosis carefully dictated by the Number gangs.
Maree (2018) briefly explains the main roles of the different Numbers:
- The 26s are the “sales force”: their role is all about money and maintaining cash flow in the prison, through prostitution, drugs and other illicit items.
- The 27s are the “legal department” as they are the enforcers of the law within The Number. If a member transgresses the laws, the 27s will carry out the judgment.
- The 28s are responsible for “business development”: As the dominant number within the gangs, they oversee the operations within the prison and ensure the steady supply of drugs and monitor cashflow and gang relations. The 28s form the leadership within The Number.
The Numbers will be discussed briefly later in the article.
Gang activities affect almost every sphere of life within South African correctional centres. Gang members boast that they have “brothers in every prison” and when this is combined with their military-like structure, ranking and robust disciplinary code, they form powerful forces in correctional centres. Gangs pose a serious threat to the orderly functioning of South African correctional centres as they cause continuous instability in the correctional centres. They control the daily lives of inmates as well as those of Correctional Services personnel. Apart from threatening wardens and fellow inmates, they also corrupt some Correctional Services personnel (Nel, 2017).
The growth of prison gangs
Rising crime levels in South Africa, arrests and subsequent convictions result in a growing inmate population which can also be attributed to more individuals who are awaiting trial. The result is overcrowded correctional centres where the latter creates the ideal opportunity for further criminal acts, violence and gangsterism. Young or first-time offenders often end up in cells with members from different gangs who are very willing to provide “protection” and “friendship” to the new inmates. A couple of years ago, Maj-Gen Jeremy Vearey, the Western Cape Deputy Provincial Commissioner of Crime Detection told Servamus that he is of the opinion that first-time offenders must be kept separate from gang members as to not share cells with them. He explained: “To stop growth inside prison, first-time offenders must be kept separate, away from the ‘Numbers’ gangs. If the ‘Numbers’ cannot grow, they will die. But while the justice system feeds them with fresh meat - they will grow forever.” Nel (2017) agrees that a separation of inmates involved in gang activities from the rest of the inmate population in a correctional centre is advised. Maj-Gen Vearey told us that the biggest growth in terms of prison gangs is among inmates who are serving sentences of seven years and longer. The reasons are pretty obvious namely that inmates who are serving longer sentences will be around the members of these gangs for longer periods and that their survival will depend on these gangs and on their decision to join them (refer to the article published in Servamus: March 2015). To illustrate how inmates become involved in more criminal activities, Kaviani (2018) mentions a case of a man who stole a loaf of bread in 1978. After his arrest, he was thrown into a cell with some high-ranking Number gang members which led to his induction. After he had committed more crime during his incarceration, he was only released in 2003.
Dolley (2015) reports about the new gang assessment tool which was a programme driven by the Department of Correctional Services following two years’ research. It was based on case studies and prison operations in California and Canada, as well as locally where the 26s, 27s and 28s operate. Maj-Gen Vearey said the plan had been fine-tuned and was implemented in 2015.