Sprinter and convicted killer Oscar Pistorius was preparing to spend his first night Tuesday in the overcrowded and violent Pretoria Central Prison – a facility that was used for thousands of apartheid-era hangings and which now houses some of South Africa’s most hardened criminals.
Little more than two years after his inspirational track performances alongside able-bodied athletes at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the double-amputee ‘Blade Runner’ was driven to the jail in an armored police van after being sentenced to five years imprisonment for the fatal shooting of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
The prison, recently renamed the Kgosi Mampuru II Management Area, was the execution site for at least 3,500 opponents of South Africa's former white-minority government. Its gallows, capable of hanging seven prisoners at a time, have been turned into a national memorial and grim tourist attraction.
Inmates housed at the prison include apartheid-era police death squad leader Eugene de Kock, locally nicknamed "Prime Evil." The daily routine at the prison is overshadowed with the threat of rape, HIV infection and gang violence.
“It is not meant to be a holiday camp,” said Ulrich Roux, director at Johannesburg law firm BDK. “Oscar will undergo a medical check and then the authorities will decide if he should be housed in the general accommodation or in the area with single cells.”
Pistorius’ sister, Aimee, handed the athlete’s cellphone and toiletry bag to court officials as he was led away following Tuesday’s ruling.
Defense lawyers and witnesses had argued that a prison sentence would be unsuitable for Pistorius, saying there was a lack of facilities for the disabled and that the sporting icon would be singled out for attacks by other inmates. Probation officer Annette Vergeer said he would be psychologically “broken” and risked exposure to “inadequate hygiene and ventilation … gang activities and sexual violence, sodomy, rape … and sexual assault.”
But Judge Thokozile Masipa on Tuesday dismissed Vergeer’s evidence as unreliable, saying her testimony lacked credibility and was based on outdated analysis of prison conditions. “I have no doubt that, if prisons in this country were below the required standard, the ever-vigilant human rights bodies in this country would not hesitate to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation,” she said.
The judge also cited testimony from Zach Modise, the country’s acting head of prisons, who told the sentencing hearing that the Pretoria jail alone was already housing about 100 inmates with disabilities. Modise testified that Pistorius would likely be held in a section of 22 single-occupancy cells, known as the hospital wing, and that showers in the main section were fitted with rails.
“I think Oscar will cope with prison,” said Roux. “We heard at the trial how he has been strong enough throughout his life to become a sporting hero despite his disability. It will be tough, no doubt, but that is the punishment.”
Criminal attorney and former prosecutor Marius du Toit said prison authorities would "hate for anything to happen" to Pistorius and would likely be "very cautious" about his welfare.
"Having said that, there are no guarantees," he said. "In prison you are dealing with the most unsavory characters in society and I would think Oscar would be a marked man. There is no guarantee that he would be safe or otherwise. "
Pistorius must serve a minimum of one sixth of his sentence – 10 months – in prison before he can apply to spend the rest of the time under community supervision or house arrest, his lawyers said Tuesday.
Overcrowding in South Africa's prisons has been reduced in recent years, according to the most recent annual report by the country’s Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Centres (JICS), but “gangsterism” remained a problem and the number of suicides, murders and other “unnatural deaths” in prisons was higher in 2012-13 than the previous year.
A 2006 government commission described “the horrific scourge of sexual violence” in South Africa’s prisons “where appalling abuses and acts of sexual perversion are perpetrated on helpless and unprotected prisoners.”
“South African detention facilities are plagued by sexual abuse,” said a 2009 report by U.S. lobby group Just Detention International. “The country’s prisons tend to be overcrowded, and suffer from high levels of violence and poor management. Rape in South African prisons is directly linked to the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis. HIV prevalence in South Africa is among the highest in the world and the rate among prisoners is estimated to be more than double that of the general population.”
The original gallows at Kgosi Mampuru II were destroyed following the formal abolition of capital punishment in 1995 but visitors to the memorial can see a replica, complete with nooses dangling above a trap door.
The holding area for inmates prior to execution was reportedly known as “The Pot” because prisoners were left to stew before their final moments.
Reuters contributed to this report.