Wednesday, March 12, 2003

I've never told anyone this story before, and I'm not sure I should tell it at all, but it was a long time ago.

It was ten years ago. I had a decent job and my own flat, but I was rubbish with money. My credit card bill was spiralling out of control, with more and more interest being added every month. My trouble wasn't so much that I kept spending, but more that I kept forgetting to pay it. I meant to; I really, really meant to.

I had the best intentions - I'd wake up every morning thinking, "Shit! I really must pay that bill today." I'd carry the thing around with me, in a pocket, forgotten, till it was too late and the banks were shut. "Right, well, I'll definitely pay it tomorrow…"

I'd get reminder letters, and I'd carry those around all day, too. The following month's bill would arrive; with a double payment plus interest upon interest upon interest. And again, I'd forget to pay it.

Then, one day, I received a summons. I was mortified. At a hearing at Johannesburg Magistrates' Court, I agreed to pay off the outstanding amount with a small, manageable payment every month. "But if you don't keep up these payments," the judge told me, "you will go to jail."

"Oh, don't worry," I replied, "I've learned my lesson. I'll keep up these payments."

And I meant to, I really, really meant to…

But I didn't keep up the payments. I have no real explanation for this, beyond simply forgetting to pay them. Looking back, I wonder why I didn't take out a direct debit, but then I remember that the bank's representative at the court hearing wouldn't allow me to do that. Apparently I had to show good faith or something.

I wasn't really taking the whole thing seriously and when I received a letter one Friday morning asking me to report to the 'Deputy Sheriff's Office', I thought that was brilliant. I left work early that afternoon and took a bus to the southern suburbs. I got off and walked down a long dusty road in the heat, singing to myself, "I shot the sheriff, but I didn't kill the deputy".

The sheriff's office was a corrugated iron warehouse on an industrial estate. I felt completely out of place as I entered and timidly announced, "Hello, my name's David and I'm here to see the, er, deputy sheriff".

The bull-necked khaki-uniformed officers looked up from their newspapers, consulted some paperwork, and then one of them said, "Ja, come with me".

I followed him outside and when he got into a white van, I got into the passenger seat. I assumed he was just going to drive me a short way - perhaps to the court, or to a bank. Actually, I don't think I really had any idea where he would take me. It was a lovely sunny day, and his car radio was playing "Groove Is In The Heart" and all seemed well in the world…

…until he turned onto the motorway and we began heading south, away from Johannesburg.

"Er… where are we going?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was stupid: "To prison."

South Africa's Diepkloof medium security jail was recently the subject of a huge government enquiry into corruption within the prison service, and I can confirm it was no different during my stay there. From the moment I arrived, my life was in the hands not of the jailors but of the people who really ran the place - the prisoners.

I found out I was to spend six months in jail. I was terrified; stunned. I was processed, fingerprinted, allowed one phone call [to my boyfriend, who was shocked but promised he'd see what he could do]. While I was waiting at the front desk to find out my fate, some guys in a holding cage outside called me over. I ignored them. "Hey! Hey! Hey you! Listen, man. Come here. I want to tell you something. Hey! You!" I ventured over, keeping my distance, but one of them suddenly lashed out and grabbed my arm, trying to get my watch off. I managed to extricate myself, but it wasn't the last time my watch was to get me in trouble.

While waiting, a shifty-looking guy asked me what I was in for. I told him and he said, "Make sure you get put into Civil, OK? Make sure you tell them it's Civil." I didn't trust him, and ignored him. I really wish I'd listened.

Eventually, all the new intake, including the guys who'd been in the pen outside, were rounded up and marched off to the cells. I spoke to a warder and told him I was terrified, that I wanted to be put in a solitary cell. A couple of the guys from the pen shouted, "He's coming with us" and had their own private conversation with the second warder.

I was relieved when I was taken by the first warder to a solitary cell, but just ten minutes later, the second one appeared and took me to a large dormitory cell shared by perhaps forty guys, including - of course - the ones who'd hassled me earlier. It seemed obvious to me that they'd bribed the warder.

My new home was a long, narrow room with barred windows and two rows of iron bunk beds. The only spare bed was a top bunk near the back, next to those guys. "You watch out," one of them threatened as lights went out, "we're going to fuck you tonight."

I didn't get any sleep, but nothing happened to me that night. The guys were more interested in smoking dope all night, and dealing it. Packages were passed from one floor to another through the barred windows using an ingenious pulley system. The entire prison reeked of marijuana.

In the morning, I took a good look around the cell. It seemed that institutionalised homosexuality was tolerated - there were perhaps three male couples in our room. Each couple slept in two adjacent lower bunks, and stretched blankets over the exposed outer sides to create a private area within.

On the way to breakfast, one of the big guys grabbed me. "Let me see your watch. Come on, I only want to see it. Hey, come here. Well, fuck you, then." He ripped the watch off my wrist, while his mates laughed.

Queuing to receive my food, a warder instructed me to take my hands out of my pockets. I considered replying that he should stop worrying about petty things like that and sort out the crime inside the place, but I was already beginning to realise that's not how the system worked.

I took my metal tray of mielie pap [white, grainy porridge] and eggs and sat at an empty table. A big bloke came and joined me. "Hey, I hear that cunt took your watch?" I nodded. "Wait here," he said, and in full view of all the warders, slammed the other guy against the wall, and retrieved my watch.

"Here it is," he said, returning. "You can't trust those guys - you're coming to stay with us." And so that morning I moved into another dormitory, into the bed next to my rescuer. "You'll be safe here," he said. Taking a look at the pissed-off young guy who had to move out of my new bed, and at the blankets draped around us, I wasn't so sure. I realised that - to put it melodramatically - he now owned me, that I was now his bitch.

Fortunately, later that afternoon, a prison official came in. "Is there anyone called David here? He's got visitors." My boyfriend had come to see me, and he'd had to wait for two hours while the prison tried to find me. First they looked where I should have been - the civil prison - then someone remembered that I'd been put in a solitary cell, then someone blabbed that I'd been taken to the first dormitory, and then finally they found me in yet another dorm. It's scary thinking that the prison itself had no knowledge of my whereabouts, no control over what happened to me.

My boyfriend burst into tears when he saw me, pale and scared in my bottle green uniform. We had to communicate via telephone through a thick window. "Whatever it takes," I begged him, "you have to get me out of here. They're going to rape me."

When visiting time was over, I demanded that I be put into the civil section, but the corrupt warder refused, presumably wanting to return me to... well, you know. I insisted, and - thankfully - a senior official took pity on me and told the other guy to make sure I was put in the correct section.

The rest of that day passed quite smoothly. The civil section was far better and much less threatening. When I told my fellow debtors what had happened to me in the last day, they were horrified. "But those guys are murderers and rapists." The sexual harassment in the civil prison was less overt - one guy just happened to wander into the bathroom every time I tried to take a pee, and another started telling me graphic stories about his girlfriend, accompanied by obvious groping. I ignored it all and managed to sleep that night.

On Sunday morning, I was released. Pano and my best friend Paul had hired a lawyer, and had, between them, come up with the money I owed. I was free to go. Thanks to my Pano and Paul, I had spent only two nights inside. Two nights too many. I dread to think what would have happened to me if they hadn't got me out, if I'd had to serve a full six months in that place. As it was, I went back to work on Monday, and didn't tell anyone what had happened. And I religiously paid back what I owed to Pano and Paul - you can bet I didn't miss a single payment.

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