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II Economies of value

‘As if they can squeeze you to death’: Recollections of post-arrest journeys towards and into prison in South Africa

Sasha Gear


In South Africa, nearly one-third of the vast prison population are people awaiting trial or completion of their trials. Human rights actors have decried the horrific conditions for those in ‘awaiting trial’[1] [2] prisons, relative to sentenced prisoners (already bad),[3] and have called on government to address the extreme overcrowding, long periods awaiting trial, and disproportionate impact of such detention on the poor (Ballard 2011, CALS 2013, Hopkins Raphaely and Leslie 2014, Gear 2015, DJF 2015, Redpath 2019). But while conditions in these facilities - now known in South Africa, as ‘remand’ facilities - have begun to be revealed, little is known about people’s experiences in other sites of detention before arrival at prison.

After being arrested, a person is moved between different pre-prison detention spaces - police cells, police trucks, court cells, reception cells at prison, and the broader prison - typically within a few days, and at a time when they are facing significant stress and uncertainty. Then, while waiting to hear whether their trials will take place, and for the duration of their trials, remanded detainees continue to be moved between prisons and courts, although less frequently. Each of these sites informs different sets of relations with officials, fellow prisoners, and people outside detention settings. But experiences in pre-prison detention remain largely unexplored, as are the interplays in remandees’ lives between different places of pre-prison detention, between these spaces and prisons, and between these spaces and outside.

There is broad consensus that people arriving in prison for the first time are vulnerable to violence (Gear and Ngubeni 2003, Muntingh 2009, Egelund 2014, Waltorp and Jensen 2019), and that it is often a period dominated by fear.[4] In South Africa, this vulnerability has been studied in relation to sexual violence behind bars (see, for example, Gear and Ngubeni 2002, Booyens 2008). As Gear and Ngubeni (2002, p. 15) note, ‘Newcomers ... constitute a source of material goods ... [and are seen as potential] gang members [and] sexual subjects ... Consequently, on their arrival ... [they] are ... confronted by frightening and overwhelming situations’.

Goffman (1961/1991) conceptualised the formal admission routine of new detainees as the ‘mortification’ or ‘assault on the self. It involves ‘stripping processes’ that remove ‘personal identity equipment’ (clothing, belongings, and roles) and diminish a person’s separateness from other inmates. Gibbs (1982a, b) described arrival in prison as characterised by ‘entry' shock’, including disbelief, intense stress, and uncertainty. More recently, Jones and Schmidt (2000) found that fear of violence and a huge sense of loss dominated the experience of early imprisonment among prisoners in a US facility. Harvey’s (2007, p. 29) work on young men arriving at a London remand centre is unusual and welcome in recognising the many processes of transition they endured before arrival in prison, ‘from the police station to the court, from the court to the van, from the van to reception, from the reception area to the indication unit’. He does not however explore these pre-prison transitions. Overall, these considerations of entry into prison primarily focus on inmates’ internal worlds, such as the impact of prison on inmates’ self-definition and psychological adaptation to prison (see also Gooch 2013).

In contrast, in broader analyses of prisons in the global South, while the main focus is not arriving in prison, researchers have begun to shed light on the social worlds that new inmates encounter, as well as related articulations between prisons and poor neighbourhoods outside (Egulund 2014, Morelle 2014, Lx Marcis 2019, Waltorp and Jensen 2019).[5] Le Marcis’s (2019, p. 79) analysis of prison values in Ivory' Coast (which gives most attention to arriving) highlights how new detainees abruptly encounter new rules and values, as ‘ordinary ethics organising interactions outside are suspended’; these are however felt differently depending on levels of prior exposure to prison stories. As Martin et al. (2014, p. 13) note, ‘tactics and experience of survival on the street’ may be ‘entangled’ with survival in prison. Increasing recognition of such exchanges between prisons and neighbourhoods challenge the idea of prisons as being a ‘world apart’ (da Cunha 2008, 2014, Jefferson 2014), and show the porosity of prison walls, through which flow stories, drugs, food, weapons, and more (Waltorp and Jensen 2019).

This chapter is concerned with the social worlds that first-timers encounter on their arrival, not just in prison, but on their journeys towards prison following arrest. It is based on recollections of two men, Langa and Adam, now in their forties. Langa is Black, was born in Johannesburg, and spent much of his childhood in Zimbabwe; his home language is Ndebele. Adam is Coloured,[6] Afrikaansspeaking, and has lived in several small towns in the Western Cape. Both men were awaiting trial in the late 1990s and early 2000s, not long after the end of apartheid. They were detained under different circumstances at opposite ends of the country, Langa in the country’s largest city and Adam in a rural town. Talking to them years later, outside prison, I set out to explore what happened after their arrests, where they were taken, who they met, and how it felt. I have known both men for several years through my work at the human rights organisation Just Detention International-South Africa (JDI-SA). JDI-SA’s work and this chapter centre on the experiences of prisoners and former prisoners like Langa and Adam, but, of course, there is a whole lot more to them as well.

I conducted several interviews with each of them in mid-2017. If this chapter can be regarded as a form of ethnography at all, it is Langa and Adam who have ‘been there’ (Geertz 1988, p. 51, Plowman 2017, p. 444), and not me. Nonetheless, my focus was unexpected for them. They were initially surprised - and curiously amused - at my questions and the detail I requested. I was also asking them to reach back nearly two decades into their memories. While the potential limits of doing so are numerous, there were also clear benefits to having them voice their subsequent understandings, not only what they knew when living the experiences. Moreover, there was a raw quality to the detail they shared about a time they had never before relayed in such a way, or at all: I was struck by how their memories seemed to come in waves and by their animation in telling parts of them. The mimicking of characters who peopled the memories, including getting up to demonstrate with their bodies something about the encounters, conveyed another layer of depth, and powerfully communicated their experiences more viscerally. Indeed, recognising the place of their bodies at the front lines of the post-arrest encounters magnifies both the embodied nature of experience, where, ‘the body ... [is] a social phenomenon that mediates individual experience and the organisation of human societies’ (Padilla 2010, p. 261), and the violence they endured. At times, the process took them back in ways that they hadn’t expected, to what were extremely traumatic periods for both men.

I asked them to relate their experiences of the various physical detention sites in the order they experienced them. The chapter presents their accounts using this narrative frame, starting at the police station and ending just after their first night in prison.[7]1 then consider some themes emerging in the process.

Journeys towards and into prison

The police station and holding cells

Police custody was very frightening for Langa and Adam. In both cases, the officials taking them in at the police station regarded them as vulnerable because of their slender builds and youth. Adam’s limp, due to childhood polio, also contributed. At first, they were kept away from other inmates, but when evening came they were put into regular, communal cells.

It was mainly other inmates who shaped Langa and Adam’s experiences at the police station. They had little to say about police officers, except that they assigned cells, brought food, and called them for court the next day. Langa was in a cell with three young men and an older one. His uncle, who visited him at the station, had warned him to stand up for himself. Although he was frightened, he brushed off the younger men’s attempts to engage and intimidate him, choosing to sit nearer the older man, whose demeanour and calm contrasted with his own extreme stress, and gave Langa cause to respect him. The man introduced himself as Jason and in a quiet, polite way helped Langa understand what to expect from the cell routine, like when the lights would go off and blankets be delivered. Langa felt it was thanks to Jason that the youngsters didn’t bother him again, and it would turn out that Langa’s connection with Jason would profoundly shape the course of his incarceration.

Adam estimates there were about fourteen people in his cell. His mother had brought him clean clothes but another inmate, who he recognised from his neighbourhood, made Adam strip and took Adam’s clothes for himself, leaving Adam with the other man’s dirty, damp clothes, smelling of sweat. Adam was terrified and shocked that someone from his neighbourhood did this to him, but remarked, while telling the story, that a lack of neighbourly support was typical in his community.

Both Langa and Adam were taken to court after one night in the police cells: Langa had a short drive in the gumbagumba (police truck), and Adam was escorted on foot through an underground tunnel linking the police station to the court’s holding cells. Adam was deeply affected by his experience at the police station, and terrified.

Court cell before court hearing

There are two phases to arrestees’ time in the court cells: one before their court hearing and one after the hearing, when they await transport to prison for the first time or return back to prison (unless released by the court). In the court cells, the newly arrested (like Langa and Adam) who have come from the police station to court encounter others who have already been in prison and are arriving at court, from prison, for their ongoing trials.

Coming from police stations, Langa and Adam arrived ahead of the prisoners who were coming to court from prison. The arrival of the latter dramatically changed the feeling in the cells. The first thing Langa and Adam remembered about the prisoners was the intimidating way they looked at them. Langa explained:

Their eyes are piercing. ... They look at you as if they can squeeze you to death just by looking. I was like, ‘Whaaaatt?’ [whispering] ... You can’t hold eye contact with them; you have to look down. ... They are so fast. Their eyes are fast and it seems like they are used to this life. Then they want to know everything.

A ‘crew’ of prisoners ordered the others off the seating and, one after another, approached Langa, demanding to know why he was there. He was thoroughly confused: he had no clue what he was charged with and described his difficulty trying to figure out how to answer them. Eventually he said that he had stolen a white man’s money. When this phrase is said in isiZulu, he explained, it implies that the act was likely to have included a weapon, which it hadn’t. He was not trying to make himself sound dangerous, but they understood it that way, and seemed to approve, leaving him alone when he said he had no money - until after his court appearance, that is.

In the court cell Adam was similarly scrutinised with piercing looks, interrogated, and shoved about. He was also hit and insulted. Some of the prisoners were drinking and smoking dagga (marijuana), which had been smuggled in by police. In the early afternoon, groups of men who had made their appearance in court were taken back to prison. Before Adam went into court, he saw inmates preparing ‘bullets’ - small packages of dagga sealed in plastic to be smuggled into the prison in their anuses, or in the anuses of others who they forced to do it - which was very scar)' to see.


Langa vividly described his bewilderment in court; the proportions of the court room, its huge doors, and high ceiling were like nothing he had seen before. He said he felt ‘sentenced’ just being there and being seen there. But he was relieved to see his uncle; he hadn’t realised members of the public were allowed in, had never heard about court, and didn’t understand the instructions or proceedings. Finally, he heard the interpreter, ‘in slow motion’, tell him he was going to Sun

City (as Johannesburg prison is colloquially known). His uncle approached, saying that he would get the case dropped, and gave Langa some biscuits, cigarettes, and money. Langa didn’t smoke but his uncle said he would need these items, including the cigarettes.

Adam had seen court scenes on TV and, unlike Langa, could identify the magistrate and prosecutor. He saw his mother crying, and thinks it was worse for her to see him in someone else’s dirty clothes. The investigating officer had told him that he would get bail and go home, but he was remanded. He was shocked, emotional and terrified. Would other inmates also make him smuggle dagga in his backside? What awaited him in prison? He was allowed a brief hug with his mum and remembers her telling him to be strong.

Court cell after court hearing

When Langa returned to the court cell after being told he would await trial at Sun City, it was quieter, but things got busy again when court was done for the day. Suddenly another crew of men surrounded him, asking for cigarettes or money, and telling him to get more from his people outside. He didn’t see the urgency but gave them RIO (worth about five euro at the time). They said cigarettes were needed to negotiate one’s way back into Sun City. Langa was confused but realised that having the money and cigarettes from his uncle gave him a sort of power, somewhat mitigating his sense of being bullied, and giving him an upper hand.

When Adam got back to the court cell, a man named Arnie, who he recognised as a gangster from his area, first gave him food and forced him to eat it, then made him put a bullet in his backside, hitting him when he hesitated. Other men working with Arnie hurried Adam, ‘helping’ him to insert it before officials came. But officials paid scant attention to what was going on inside the cells: they would open the cell door, call the person needed in court, and close it again. Adam’s court hearing was one of the last of the day, so he was in the last group - which the inmates and officials referred to as a ‘draft’ - to be taken to prison, at 15h30. He still didn’t understand why Arnie and his friends were there, as they had had morning hearings and several drafts had already gone. Each draft represented a batch of dagga going into prison.

Adam stressed how, as a remandee, it was not returning to court or not knowing the outcome of his case that was the worst thing (though these were both very bad), but knowing he would be forced to smuggle drugs into prison. Langa was not forced in the same way, but explained, that he also, throughout his incarcerations, felt intense pressure to return to prison with as many cigarettes, other goods, and as much money as possible.

Police truck

It was during the ride to Sun City in the gumba-gumba (the inmates’ term for the police truck in Johannesburg) that Langa realised the power of cigarettes and money. Inmates were called to approach a man who sat facing the rest, just behind the driver’s cab. They would kneel before him, give him something, exchange a few words, and return to their seats. One of the inmates Langa had given cigarettes to had his turn, and pointed out Langa to the man, to which the man seemed to nod an ‘okay’. Langa later learnt that the man was a gang leader. The three other youngsters from the police cell were called, slapped, and searched, before the man turned his attention to Langa, staring at him: Langa was terrified. He noticed that Jason sat next to the gang leader and they talked all the way. Other inmates started putting money into their anuses.

Seating in the truck (or ngomo, as it is known in the Western Cape) that Adam was in was also arranged along hierarchical lines, dividing gangsters from ‘'franse’ (non-gangsters). Adam sat next to another young person, a handsome boy with curly hair and light skin, who was also very scared. Adam said that, in his terror, he tried to just focus on himself.

Admission to prison

Langa recalls noise and confusion as the doors of the gumba-gumba opened at Sun City. Officials shouted: ‘New ones this side! Madala stokkies this side!’ Madala stokkies referred to ‘oldies in prison’, those who had already been in prison before going to court that day. Warders yelled at them to squat in lines. New ones were trying to figure out what to do as fast as possible. Langa didn’t know what ‘squat’ meant. A warder slapped him and anyone else who wasn’t squatting.

The madala stokkies were moved away but some looked back at the new ones as they handed in valuables. Langa anxiously, and to the surprise of the others, presented his watch and money. He hadn’t been searched in the truck, so he had gotten this far with them. He stuck close to Jason as they were taken to the cell.

Adam was searched after arriving at the prison. He was not slapped, nor made to squat. (Langa explained that the practice had declined as part of post-apartheid reforms.) Adam was however deeply humiliated when a warder brought him to the prison reception desk, and said ' Hicr is die pernors’ (here is the rubbish). He was referring to the crime Adam was charged with.

Admission cell

Warders ushered Langa and the other newcomers into the admission cell of the ‘awaiting trial’ prison. They quickly became aware of the cell boss - another inmate called the ‘rep’ - who shouted commands from the back. They were made to squat on the cold floor while the rep screamed, ‘Is there a new one?!’ and then fell silent. They were bewildered and squatted for ages while the warders finished locking the cells for the night. When the main steel door closed, they were ordered to strip, leave their belongings, and go to the shower, all the time being yelled at: ‘You stink! Don’t you have showers outside?!’ In the shower they were pushed into one another and beaten. When they were finally let out of the shower, Langa discovered his food and new takkies (sneakers) were gone. Others had lost belts and jackets. Langa used his facecloth to dry himself as best he could and got dressed. Then the ‘rep’s crew’ called those who had lost items to go to the back of the cell, which was separated from the front part by a curtain of sheets. There the rep’s crew asked the new ones what they’d lost. Most were told that these objects were their payment to be in the cell, that they were lucky to still have clothes. The fact that Langa and another had lost shoes, however, was seen as a bit more serious. When Langa’s turn came, they gave him an old, too-small pair to wear. The crew explained that the new ones like Langa were only visiting and this was the older prisoners’ ‘home’; they had been here for years and needed things from outside - things the new ones had because they had just come from outside. The man who had Langa’s shoes told Langa that he (the man) still had a long journey ahead; he had to go to High Court and needed to be nicely dressed. The new ones, he said, would likely get out much earlier, while he didn’t have access to outside. (Langa thinks that the stolen shoes had to be replaced with an inferior pair of shoes, because the warders would have to intervene if an inmate had no shoes at all, and the crew was seeking to avert such warder attention.)

The cell was crowded and cold. All the bunkbeds were in the back with the rep’s crew. Langa later learnt that the front part of the cell, without any beds, was called ‘effubudwini' (the dirty part where the masses sleep). Langa sat against the wall, uncomfortable and cold. A bit later, there were more shouts from the back, ‘ One lapho eChinaV and ‘ One lapho ejapan'. Langa didn’t understand. They were calling for a new one to move, either to the very back of the cell (called ‘China’) or the middle (‘Japan’). When the new ones didn’t move, some of the men who’d been there longer went to the back. They were refused: ‘We called a new one!’, the crew yelled out. Then Jason said quietly, ‘They want one of us’. Still no one moved. Three men then charged out from the back and started beating them. Jason stood up, pushed them away, and started speaking in ‘gang language’. This shifted everything. The crew members bowed, and showed Jason to the back of the cell. As Langa suspected, Jason knew ‘everything about this place’. He turned out to be a senior gangster. Langa was even more afraid now Jason was gone. The demands for a new one continued. When a new one finally went to the back, through the curtain, he was made to squat for the crew, do a chore (washing or sweeping), and then sent back to the front if they were satisfied. If they were not satisfied, the new one was beaten. Either way, when they returned they had to tell another new one that ‘they’ were waiting for him. So the calls for one lapho continued. If no one went, they were all beaten.

Later Jason emerged from the curtained area to go to the toilet. On his way back he signalled to Langa to follow him to Japan. He then negotiated with the leaders to feed Langa, as they’d taken his food along with his shoes, and he’d only had bread since arriving. When Langa returned to egubudwini, thanks to his association with Jason, he did not need to respond to the one lapho calls and he got an extra blanket. (He later learnt that one gang, the 26s, ruled the China area of the cell, while Japan was divided among other gangs.)

In the morning, before warders opened the cell, non-gang members had to clean it and the curtains were removed. Langa remarked that the warders knew well the curtains went up at night, but it showed them necessary respect to obey the no-curtain rule while they were around in the day. On Langa’s first morning, after the cell was opened, warders ushered everyone into the corridor, to squat in twos. Langa recalls that he was still trying to work out what ‘squat’ meant. The warders counted, then kept the new ones back in order to allow them to report any complaints out of earshot of the others. However, they dismissed reports of stolen clothing, accusing the newcomers of lying and trading. Langa later realised that they were paid to do so.

Because Langa’s court date was only a week away, he was not moved to the main part of the prison after a night or two, as is the norm, but stayed in the admission cell. Jason had negotiated a much smoother ride for him, but he was still very scared.

Adam was put into the crowded admission cell at Allandale prison. Gangsters had claimed the few beds, which were pushed to the walls, and franse slept on the floor in the middle. A gang called the 28s had the space near the ablution area.

Before going into the cell, newcomers were lined up and questioned by gangsters. Those already belonging to gangs were invited in, and those without gang affiliation were chosen to be franse of either the 26s or the 28s. Adam was taken by the 28s, and by Arnie in particular. Arnie said he saw ‘water’ in Adam’s face, which was prison slang for saying he is beautiful. In retelling this part of his story, Adam stated that Arnie and the other prisoners should have been taken back to the main sections of the prison and not left with newcomers.

The new ones were then sent to the toilet area to remove the bullets. Adam was sent in second. It was extremely painful, and he struggled and bled; a gangster yelled at him for taking so long. There was only one roll of toilet paper, making it difficult for the men to clean themselves.

Until the lights went off, seasoned inmates smoked dagga and talked. Adam had to sleep on the floor near Arnie. They were packed ‘like sardines’, he said, and the blankets were filthy. Adam was next to the boy with curly hair who he’d been with in the ttgomo. A gangster came and told the boy that Arnie needed him in the shower, but then the boy returned to tell Adam that it was actually him that Arnie wanted. Arnie made Adam strip and lay face down, raped him, and then sent him naked back to his place. On his way back, another inmate demanded some of what he had ‘given’ Arnie. Adam negotiated to do oral sex, as he was so sore and losing feeling in his legs.

When he got back to his place, the curly-haired boy was shaking and his eyes were full of tears; Adam felt his sympathy and horror. Adam didn’t sleep and was too scared to go to the toilet. The next day he was moved to ‘C section’ in the main prison. He had a medical assessment as part of his admission, but when he told the nurse that he’d been raped she dismissed him.

While the rest of Adam’s time in prison is beyond this chapter’s scope, it is important to state, and indeed stress, that for 10 years Adam was routinely sexually abused in prison. He contracted HIV during that time, and he continues to struggle with severe trauma and ill health.

Emerging themes

Inmate governance

A striking aspect of Langa’s and Adam’s accounts of their early pre-trial[8] journeys is the relative absence of officials.[9] Other than in the courtroom and the prison reception area, it was mainly inmates - not officials - calling the shots, especially on the internal running of spaces. Recent research from Southern contexts increasingly points to the continued role of inmates in daily prison governance (Garces et al. 2013, Jefferson and Martin 2014, Lc Marcis 2014, Morelle 2014, Weegels 2017) even while the state system and the officials it employs shape the broad and brutal strokes of carceral experience. Due to resource scarcity and overcrowding, officials delegate some roles to inmates, and inmates adjust to, appropriate, and negotiate available space, giving rise to ‘informal practices that supplement and connect with institutional practices in the day-to-day management’ (Morelle 2014, p. 22).

In the men’s accounts of other pre-trial spaces, too, officials mainly oversaw the boundaries of those spaces - between cells and other buildings, between prison trucks and outside, between particular sub-spaces in the prison - and channelled inmates between them. Officials had little to do with what happened inside those spaces.

Both men vividly described how pre-prison spaces reflected inmate hierarchies. Their stories also reveal points of connection between inmate and official hierarchies, which shaped both official and unofficial realms of governance. For example, Arnie’s crew clearly arranged with officials to remain behind in the court cells and the admission cell in order to access the newly arrested; warders, for their part, dismissed newcomers’ reports of stolen belongings. Morelle (2014) notes, in the Cameroonian context, that bribery payments link inmate and official hierarchies, and that officials keep within certain limits when applying rules, as a way of preserving the reciprocity created in such linkages. In Langa’s account, powerful inmates kept within certain limits even as they broke official rules: curtains defining power zones in the cells came down before officials returned in the morning, even though warders knew that the curtains went up at night, and stolen shoes were replaced with old ones, to avoid warder intervention.

More than mortification

The men’s own bodies are part of the space where inmate power is enacted and through which it is felt and learnt. While control and surveillance of bodies is central to confinement broadly, the intensity of this bodily-ness is striking and unusual in other accounts of arrival. Goffinan’s (1961/1991, p. 27) notion of ‘mortification’ focuses on the impact on identity, and he describes admission processes as requiring a ‘leaving off and a taking on, with the midpoint being physical nakedness. ... [L]eaving off entails a dispossession of property’. Goffinan (1961/1991, pp. 319-320) also notes that staff and fellow inmates ‘go out of their way’ to give the newcomer a clear indication of where he stands.

‘Mortification’, literally meaning deep humiliation and shame, certainly resonates with Langa’s and Adam’s stories. But it is unofficial, not official, processes mostly doing the ‘taking off, and it is inmates rather than warders who are the main, direct instigators of humiliation. As Steinberg (2004, p. 23) notes, ‘In attempting to escape mortification, the Number gangs become quasi institutions of mortification themselves’.

These processes begin before a remandee even arrives at the prison reception. They are also more dynamic and intense, demanding a great deal more of the newcomers, than the mortification outlined by Goffinan. To different degrees, the subjugation of their bodies is explicit, physically violent, and ongoing, as they are pummelled to feel the new order and to comply with it. Newcomers are also put on the spot to produce explanations and perform obedience, aware that they don’t know the rules of the rapid-moving test they are in, only knowing that it is dangerous to fail.

Blurring boundaries

The court cells are especially charged. Although Langa and Adam were at opposite ends of the country and appeared in court a few years apart, the feel of the encounters they described is similar. The tense and terrifying nature of these events turns out to be fuelled by the interplay of two factors: court cells are where the newly arrested first meet those already living in prison, and the relative proximity to ‘outside’ of court cells, and their temporal place in journeys to prison, provides rare opportunity for acquiring goods.

At court, opportunities for obtaining items that may ease one’s life in prison are greatest. For people being remanded to prison, it is the last place (besides visiting hours) where direct contact with outsiders is possible. For those already in prison, appearing in court is the only time they are physically out of prison and have access to other people’s ‘outsiders’. Newcomers, through their relatives attending court, are new links to the outside, and represent a fresh supply of goods for those already in prison. Regarding the movement of goods into prison, it is here, at court, that borders between confined and outside spaces are most blurred, and the porosity of carceral walls is greatest.

For those already in prison, gaining access to newcomers in the court cells is an opportunity for expanding networks for resource mobilisation. This dynamic echoes and combines observations that seizing (fleeting) opportunities is a tactic for navigating confinement and mastering time and space (Moran 2013, Le Marcis 2019, see also Simone 2004), and of the centrality of outside networks for survival inside (Waltorp and Jensen 2019, Le Marcis 2019). Here, however, it is not so much the re-activation, suturing, or downplaying of existing kinship relations, which are Waltorp and Jensen’s focus, but prisoners’ appropriation, in a sense, of newcomers’ kinship relations.

As in Adam’s case, newcomers also represent new vessels for smuggling goods. The little time available for exploiting the opportunities, and hiding the gains, shapes experiences in the court cell and truck, where the final stashing of contraband into bodies may happen. (The fact that the stashing mainly happened in the gumba-gumba for Langa may have been because inmates had to first make offerings to the gang leader, and because of the much longer distance to the prison relative to that in Adam’s case.)

Adam’s and Langa’s stories show that gang rule reaches out, beyond prison, into pre-trial places, both overtly when the cell doors are closed but also covertly, in the transitions between these spaces: gang rule is literally put into, and carried in, inmate bodies, in the form of bullets. Bodies are part of a gang’s booty, and violence serves to insist on new uses for them. Adam’s body was progressively taken from him, first to move drugs from the outside and then for others to use for sex. Clearly Arnie targeted him for both.

Before newcomers physically reach the actual prison, then, prisoners bring parts of it and its values to - and into - them. And while this forms a clear flow outwards, from the prison to pre-trial spaces, the tension inside court cells and police trucks comes from the frenetic focus on making things flow from outside into prison.

The ‘outside’ value of newcomers

After Langa’s arrival in prison, the demands by the rep’s crew revealed that the earlier stashing of goods was in preparation for such demands. The gangsters’ framings of their demands underscored the centrality of the newcomers’ proximity to outside at the same time that they taught newcomers that, as Le Marcis (2019, p. 80) puts it, ‘ordinary notions of good and bad require redefinition in prison’. The newcomers had just come from outside, and many would soon be released, they reasoned; their goods were needed for reducing the pains of the gangsters’ imprisonment and for continuing their pre-trial journeys. Langa’s takkies would bring their new owner comfort and could even influence his trial before the High Court. Adam’s neighbour, by stealing Adam’s clothes in the police cell, was catering for his own pre-trial journey. Indeed, much of the violence against newcomers was connected to other inmates’ preparations for prison and their own trials.

Tracing Adam’s and Langa’s pre-trial journeys from the police station into prison reveals their unwitting roles in other inmates’ lives, the prison economy, and hierarchies. Primarily, their fear, disorientation, and brutalisation came from being squeezed for the prison value they could provide to more seasoned inmates. Showing newcomers their lowly places in this new order is essential to this process, at least during the early pre-trial phases.

How the dice rolls

Although these patterns are stark, the men’s accounts also reveal a randomness to how things may unfold for different individuals. In journeying towards prison, and when inside, connections may be made that shape a person’s experiences. These may be protective, like Langa’s meeting of Jason, or make one a target, like Adam was for Arnie. Relatedly, Lindegaard and Gear (2014) have noted the severe limits to individual agency in prison, where roles are imposed according to others’ expectations. Newcomers must suddenly, quickly, and frequently adapt and develop responses to unexpected, traumatic situations, and regroup as individuals. In doing so, they negotiate fragments of space for themselves, managing to resist facets of the pressures, and, however minimally, to reduce the degree of harm.


As newcomers journey through post-arrest detention towards and into prison, in different detention spaces and at different times, they meet changing constellations of people and pressures. Viewing these early pre-trial experiences as multi-staged journeys (rather than focusing on isolated detention spaces), we see that continuities exist across them, especially the imperative to acquire goods. Newcomers are tools for achieving this, and their experiences are shaped as they are brutally inducted by other inmates into securing and channelling goods to prison. Pressures are not constant, but intensify in the court cells because of the rare, fleeting access to outside that courts provide. These pressures magnify the centrality in prison life of networks and the goods they provide (Morelle 2014, Waltorp and Jensen 2019, Le Marcis 2019): for those already in prison, newcomers are routes to boosting both. Tracing this journey also reveals how processes to take bodies, themselves as prison goods, may start in pre-prison spaces.

The ways that those in prison inflict prison priorities on newcomers even before they reach prison, and the obsession in pre-prison spaces with acquiring goods for prison life, call for us to recognise the range of interplays between inside and outside worlds, their mutual formation, and the porosity of carceral boundaries (da Cunha 2008, 2014). But the same brutal urgency of these preparations - ahead of arrival at prison - underscore the definiteness of the prison boundary, nonetheless.


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  • [1] I am deeply grateful to Adam and Langa (not their real names) tor sharing and trusting mewith their personal accounts of their immensely difficult journeys into prison, without whichthis chapter would not be possible. Ecoppaf coordinators, Frederic Le Marcis and MarieMorelle, have done a phenomenal job of providing individual guidance and steering the wonderful Ecoppaf experience: thank you both! Thanks to Julia Hornberger, whose commentsand suggestions were invaluable in refining my focus, and for her leadership of our SouthAfrican contingent; she has been a source of support and insight throughout as have KathyRawlings and Musa Risimati! Finally, thanks to Doreen Gaura, Christine Deslaurier, SiriusJose Epron, and Yasmine Bouagga for comments, to Just Detention International for all thesupport, and to the rest of the Ecoppaf team!
  • [2] ‘Awaiting trial’ has historically been used in South Africa to refer to the experience of beingincarcerated prior to conviction and sentencing in, for example, ‘awaiting trial prisons*. It isnot absolutely precise as it also refers to people awaiting the completion of their trials. Following relatively recent legislative amendments, the term ‘remand’ is now used, with reference to‘remand detainees’ or ‘remandees’ and ‘remand facilities’.
  • [3] In a previous piece, I found that a lack of policy guidance for officials responsible for supervising remandees, combined with mentally ill arrestees being held in prison facilities because ofoverflowing mental health institutions, exacerbate the problems (Gear 2015).
  • [4] Suicide is also more likely among prisoners during the early custody period (Liebling 1995).
  • [5] Egelund (2014) also, in a rare mention of police cells, notes that the violence that Zambianinmates regularly experience starts there.
  • [6] In South Africa, ‘Coloured’ refers to people of mixed race. The term is not uncomplicated noruncontroversial, and is part of the racist colonial legacy. See, for example, Adhikari (2013).
  • [7] This by no means marked the end of their pre-trial journeys, but given the intent to focus onearly phases of‘arriving’, and space limitations, this chapter is restricted in this way.
  • [8] ‘Pre-trial’ is used here to refer to this early post-arrest period. Technically it is not absolutely‘pre-trial’, as the trials started with the first court hearings, but is used tor ease of reference.
  • [9] Langa also shared chilling encounters with officials and their dogs in the prison dining room,but these experiences tall beyond this chapter’s scope as they occurred after his first day inprison.
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