Exclusive: Inside the hellish prison where Nelson Mandela was held

Before we even see the cell, we can smell it. It’s the suffocating stench of 86 men squeezed into a room built for 19.

A warden shoves a key into a rusted iron grate. “Get back,” he shouts. The inmates stumble backwards to allow the door to swing open.

The cell is a rectangular room with bunk beds stacked three tiers high. In one corner the detainees share a toilet and cold shower, but often the best they can do is a bucket.

Some detainees are dressed in regulation yellow garb, some in various levels of undress. It’s summer and it’s stifling in here. In winter it’s brutally cold. The detainees say they are let outside to exercise once a week at best. Skin diseases are endemic; catching tuberculosis is extremely likely.

And none of the men has been convicted.

“The worst thing is to see how the people must lie lay here on the floor next to each other at night,” says Clive, who has been here for two years and two months awaiting trial. “Animals could live like this, but not human beings.”

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Some, like Clive, get stuck here because of endless trial delays, some because they can’t afford bail of as little as 50 Rand (less then $5), some because they are foreign nationals waiting to get deported.

“We don’t invite them here as correctional services. They come here because they do alleged crimes,” says Cecil John Jacobs, the acting head of the remand facility.

But observers say the problems here are endemic and reflect a South African criminal justice system in crisis.

“It’s a 20-year problem, with no end in sight in terms of conditions and the sheer numbers that they detain,” says Clare Ballard, an attorney with Lawyers for Human Rights, who are suing the South African government.