musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

The Women’s Jail in Johannesburg

This is a retrospective post dealing with my visit to the Women’s Jail in Johannesburg. I can tie the date down to 10 March 2012 as that was the day that I visited the Number 4 JailConstitutional Court and Johannesburg Fort.

I do not remember the Jail as I did the Fort, I remember the Fort because of it’s strange angled entrance, but I suspect I just didn’t notice the jail right next door.

The main entrance certainly doesn’t look like a jail, if anything it looks like just another old building that has an extreme case of burglar bars. 

However, if you do manage to walk through the front door you will be surprised at what lies beyond. 

The jail was built around the “panopticon” concept of Jeremy Bentham, as it features a central area with cell blocks radiating around it. It certainly looked very smart and businesslike when I was there, but I suspect reading back on history it will turn out to be yet another place of punishment and not rehabilitation.

The women’s jail was built in 1909, with separate sections for whites and other races. Treatment meted out on prisoners here really depended on their race. The white prisoners were given better treatment as compared to other races who were crowded in their cells with bad and inadequate sanitary conditions.

However, considering the state of the nearby “Number 4” jail, this place appears to be almost luxurious in comparison. 

The problem with a place like this is that many who were incarcerated really deserved to be here, and many did not. This jail also held political activists like Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu.

In 1932 Daisy de Melker was held here. She was eventually convicted of murder and executed by hanging.

Realistically there was not a lot to see here because much of the facility was closed when I was there, and naturally I was the wrong gender to be in a place like this. 

The one thing I did not feel in this building was the sense of heaviness that I got from Number 4 Jail, at least the cells in this building seemed to be more habitable than that of Number 4. Still, I am sure that the days and nights were very long for the inmates, many of who were incarcerated for trivial offences that did not warrant the punishment dealt out by the courts. This building does go back to the bad days of “Pass Laws” and all the petty apartheid legislation that was created to oppress the African population.

My time was over and I do recall I had to be elsewhere on that day so I did not spend too much time here. The irony is that I lived very close to this place of imprisonment and never even realised it. At least the reason for this building has changed, it is just a pity that places like this are needed in the first place.

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