OVERCROWDING, too few prisons and a critical shortage of warders are a "ticking time bomb", say union and inmate spokesmen, who fear riots could spread throughout South Africa's jails.
On Monday, hundreds of inmates at the maximum-security Groenpunt Correctional Centre in the Free State went on a rampage.
After complaining about the food they were being given, more than 700 prisoners went through the jail with home-made weapons, smashing walls, and setting cells and offices alight.
Running battles between the inmates and heavily armed police left nine warders and 60 prisoners injured. The prisoners also demanded that one of the unit heads at the prison be fired.
According to Correctional Services sources, prisoners had planned the uprising for months.
It is now feared that prisoners in other facilities around South Africa may run amok.
However, national commissioner of Correctional Services Tom Moyane dismissed these concerns.
"We need to look at what is going on here. Who is behind this riot?
"Is it a case of the dog wagging the tail or the tail wagging the dog? These are not altar boys. These are murderers and rapists, men serving multiple life sentences – some of more than 100 years."
Though Correctional Services would investigate allegations that prison management "repeatedly" ignored inmates' complaints, it would not be dictated to, Moyane said.
"We are here to provide a service. We are here to ensure that these people remain inside and South Africans remain safe. While some of the prisoners' concerns are genuine, others are not," he said.
"The investigation will look at whether prison management was lax about the complaints. If so, they will have to take the full brunt of any disciplinary action."
Both the South African Prisoners' Organisation for Human Rights and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) expressed concern that the riot might be replicated in other prisons.
"We are sitting on a ticking time bomb," SA Prisoners' Organisation for Human Rights national spokesman Golden Miles Bhudu said.
"This is something that could happen at any prison at any time.
"Prisoners do not just wake up one morning and decide to go on a rampage. This rebellious action comes as a last resort – prisoners see no other option."
"What happened [at Groenpunt] is a statement – a warning about what will happen if concerns are not addressed properly," he said.
Rather than address the complaints, the authorities had moved those inmates who complained to another facility, Bhudu said.
At least 200 of those identified as the instigators of the riot are said to have been transported to Kokstad's maximum-security prison, while others are set to be moved to prisons in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Western Cape.
Bhudu said more prisons needed to be built.
Popcru general secretary Nkosinathi Theledi said the threat of sympathy riots was very real.
"Officials are aware of this but do not care. Just look at the warder to prisoner ratio. In some prisons, it is 1:300. Everywhere there are staff shortages, which are fuelling this deadly situation."
Lukas Muntingh, civil society prison reform project coordinator, said an independent investigation into the riot was needed.
"The entire prison system must be relooked at."