prison recordsParticipation in a historical research project about South Africa’s ex-political prisoners involved the retrieval of Apartheid era archive records of the Department of Correctional Services (called DCS hereafter) during which the following observations were made. This could be of use to anyone wishing to conduct similar research and be an indication of what types of records are available. Access procedures are explored as well as the locations and the conditions in which some records were found. The focus is on prison records.

Proper management of prison records would have seen those with archival value routinely transferred into the custody of the National Archives (State Archives Service before 1997) when they reached 30 years of age. The remainder would have been

destroyed in terms of relevant State Archives Service disposal authorities on expiry of authorized retention periods. In reality, during the apartheid era these procedures were implemented unevenly. This resulted in significant accumulations of records building up in most prisons. The introduction of the moratorium on records destruction in 1995 (see below) ensured that none of these records were destroyed. Ironically, then, poor records management ensured that far more has survived than might have been expected. However, in many prisons the conditions in which these records are stored are far from desirable. Urgent intervention by the National Archives, provincial archives services and other relevant authorities is imperative.

A) South African Prisons under Apartheid

Depending on the years that will be researched it is important to take note of important events in the history of DCS that will be helpful in locating records and possibly provide ideas of where such records could also be located. Initially DCS was a subdivision of the Department of Justice, as was the case in 1981-1983. The Department of Prisons was established as a separate state department, only on 1 August 1952. This will have some implications when trying to obtain records because depending on who was in charge of the prisons at the time, this was the department which reported to cabinet. The Minister of Justice also classified Prison information when he was in charge, for instance. Name changes of the heads of prison also occurred – he/she was called the Director of Prisons from 1956 and the Commissioner of Prisons from 1978.

The Prisons Act of 1959 implemented Apartheid fully in Prisons through the racial and ethnic separation of prisoners. This means that in many cases records are filed according to race and with some of the older records (1960s) filed under first names rather than surnames. This Act also effectively stopped any investigations into SA Prisons and prohibited the publication of any information concerning SA prisons. The establishment of the Act followed shocking exposures in newspapers about the conditions in SA prisons in 1959.

The detention of political prisoners in South Africa attracted the attention of international organizations including the Red Cross, the United Nations and Amnesty International especially in the 1970s when many SA prisons housed political prisoners and activists. It is well known that not only formally sentenced prisoners were kept in Prisons but also people who were detained under the relevant security legislation (detention laws). Detainees were kept all over South Africa and some even in Police cells.

Formally sentenced prisoners were categorized in terms of prisoner privileges and security that was part of the Correctional Services management system:

Minimum security: Grade A (received most privileges)

Medium security: Grade B

Maximum security: Grades C and D (received least privileges)

The Commissioner of Prisons and his staff determined the treatment of every prisoner, guided by the general instructions laid down by the Prisons Act, prisoner handbooks and disciplinary rules. These are complex and often vague, but recorded in some documents that will be listed below.

All prisoners were allocated a Raad (Board) number that was sometimes also called the Registration number and retained this number through the complete period of imprisonment.

B) Record Keeping Regulations for prisoner admissions to prisons

The “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and Related Recommendations” were adopted at the United Nations congress in 1955 from the International Penal and Penitentiary Commission when the UN took over the functions

of the I.P.P.C. The Republic of South Africa adopted the Standard Minimum Rules in principle and has generally applied them subject to local legal, social, economic and geographical conditions. They are in fact reflected in the Prisons Act of 1959 (no. 8), regulations thereunder, prison service orders and other departmental directives. Part 1 of the rules covers the general management of institutions, and is applicable to all categories of prisoners, criminal or civil, untried or convicted, including prisoners subject to “security measures” or corrective measures ordered by a judge. Rule 7(1) orders that “In every place where persons are imprisoned there shall be kept a bound registration book with numbered pages in which shall be entered in respect of each prisoner received:

a) Information concerning his/her identity

b) The reasons for his/her commitment and the authority thereof

c) The day and hour of his/her admission and release

(2) No person shall be received in an institution without a valid commitment order of which the details shall have been previously entered in the register.

Because the above international regulations stipulated the standards for and maintenance of bound registers in all prisons, also in South Africa, as well as the application of certain directives for the organization within prisons and minimum requirements, it would be interesting to research the application of these rules in the specific South African situation during Apartheid.

Important conventions that were used during the Apartheid era’s DCS included the following descriptions of sentences that also referred to the prisoner classification:

KB: Kort bepaalde (Short determined sentence 2-4 years)

MB: Medium bepaalde (Medium determined sentence 5-8 years)

LB: Lang bepaalde (Long determined sentence 9-15 years)

KO: Korrektiewe opleiding (Correctional training for common law prisoners 2-4 years)

VM: Voorkoming van misdaad (Prevention of crime for common law prisoners 5-8 years)

OV: Onbepaalde vonnis (Indeterminate sentence normally also for common law prisoners 9-15 years)

C) Access to the Department of Correctional Services Historical Records

Depending on which prison/s will be the target of research, one has to apply to the provincial office of DCS for the needed access to records as well as to inform the Prison head of the prison in question of the proposed visit/s that will be conducted for the official research. Normally this process does not take long at all but it is crucial that this is all done in writing and explains the proposal at hand. In other words, it is imperative that one is clear on what kinds of records are required and for what purpose. Normally research applications and the process is channeled through the Department’s research office.

After such research has been completed, the prison usually requires a report as a form of feedback on what has been useful in their archive (also in writing). One can also apply directly to the Prison of interest after which the head of the prison will take the application up with the Area Manager for approval. However, working through the provincial office seems to speed up the application. Applications can be made to the Commissioner of the specified Provincial office and is a better route, especially if

research will be conducted in more than one prison of such a province. Once access is granted, it is not subjected to an expiry period.

A moratorium on the destruction of any DCS material was introduced in 1995, and has still not been lifted. This causes a great deal of space problems for the Prison archivists as they cannot accept older records and offices are being piled up with material that should be archived already and because no records can be disposed of yet.

D) Prison Archives

There are usually no inventories available of what is in existence in the archive. Some archives have more space than others but this would then only mean that files are up on shelves that end close to the roof. Should this be the case, at least it means that

records are centralized. Usually this is not the case as more than one prison storage area is used to store records.

Because of the moratorium some prisoner admission registers range from as early as 1946. Classified as part of a group of records that is never earmarked for destruction and which need to be placed in the custody of the National/Provincial Archives when they reach 20 years of age, some prisons in the Western Cape have been in contact with the Cape Archives Repository for the transfer thereof after which the Cape Archives have done the investigations and are currently busy organizing the space and procedures that happens shortly before such a transfer. These older registers are huge bounded books that take up enormous amounts of space and are very heavy.

Most prisons were not exclusively used for political prisoners. Some had male, female and juvenile sections, and medium and maximum facilities. Admission registers and other records are all mixed at times, some marked accordingly but not always. Due to the fact that the Apartheid government made no distinction between Common law and Political prisoners, the filing system also did not acknowledge this difference.

Another phenomenon that is common in prison archives is the fact that prisons which closed down have their files stored in other active prisons. Once again because of the unavailability of an inventory, this means that it is not always known which files moved where.

Normally there is only archivist who has to manage a big collection and who has to do the inventory (apparently done this year for submission to the head offices and because of the moratorium). At one prison it is known that the labour-intensive work of

organizing records in 2 storage areas will be allocated to an assistant to be appointed soon.

The conditions under which one prison housed some of the records – from another closed down institution – was not ideal because they were left in a room that allowed light and humid conditions and were literally stacked on the floor and extremely

disorganized. Even though most of this material was found to be in records categories that would probably be disposed of after archival appraisal, just the sorting thereof would create difficulties because of the inappropriate storage. This was reported to the prison accordingly and since then positive steps have been taken by the prison archivist that included the immediate movement of the records and negotiation regarding the transfer thereof to the Cape Archives. This is important as half of the closed down prison’s material is already in the Cape Archives.

It can be highly problematic for the researcher when information is stored in various venues because of the fact that different officers “control” access to different venues and this can be a source of major frustration. In one prison, political detainee records that have been used by a formal institution a year ago, were kept in an office space which may cause the records to be even more vulnerable.

In another prison, which has two levels, the records are nicely boxed, marked and sealed- ready for transfers or disposal, although the lower level once again housed the records of yet another institution that closed down. These records were not properly shelved or sorted.

For those interested in research on Robben Island Prison, most Prison files are in the Cape Archives Repository of the National Archives. The Old Fort Prison files are stored in the Diepkloof Prison Archive.

E) National Archives

As has been mentioned, some DCS archival records have been transferred to the National Archives. This means that the records older than 20 years should be available without restriction in terms of the National Archives of South Africa Act, and that access to records less than 20 years old can be requested by written application.. Such an application needs to be compiled in a format that states the exact documents, files or boxes (reference numbers) to which access is required.

Recently, DCS transferred the institutional (individual case) files of SA Political Prisoners to the National Archives in Pretoria. These files can be accessed only by the person whose file it is, or in cases where this person is deceased, by the next of kin.

Should anyone wish to consult these files, they have to provide positive identification and get the permission in writing from the person whose file they wish to access (or from the next of kin if this person is deceased). The files come from major Apartheid prisons (e.g. Robben Island, Pretoria and Kroonstad), and were stored at the Pretoria Prison’s archive before the transfer took place to the National Archives in Pretoria in July 2002. Research on these files will reveal how many prisons they actually cover and if it was managed to identify and recover all the political cases from these prisons. One concern in this regard is that a political prisoner’s file was often transferred with him/her once he/she was transferred to a prison where he would have been released from (often with an imposed restriction to the area in which the release took place). Most of the documents in such a file are concerned with events and political affiliations during imprisonment in the form of reports. It often includes details of the conviction, and of pre-imprisonment political activities. Court judgments and newspaper clippings

are also found, but this is only included when a file has several volumes. The files vary from person to person. Some files can have very few documents. Political prisoner definition is given in terms of incarceration under the main security legislation and a prisoner being classified as a security prisoner.

DCS records to be preserved indefinitely are identified on the basis of an appraisal done many years ago by the Apartheid State Archives Service. It is imperative that the appraisal be revisited in light of current information needs before the moratorium on destruction is lifted. Assessment of the DCS disposal authority indicates that records of historical value will be lost if this is not done. Special attention needs to be paid to the preservation of Apartheid era records, which were created at a time when the operations of DCS were kept under wraps. It must be noted here though that the UWC / Robben Island Mayibuye Archive, has the Idaf (International Defence and Aid Fund) collection, which includes regular updates in the form of publications about prison and imprisonment in South Africa as well as a collection of newspaper clips, covering political trials and imprisonment in South Africa.

F) About Record Categories

Registers are sometime described incorrectly in the archives. One example is a prisoner admission register being described as a precious items register and on other occasions as a register of clothes. Different registers do however have standard reference numbers that will make identification easier.

Political prisoners are usually described as prisoners whose actions were attempts to endanger the security of the state. Normally written confirmation from the South African Police was required. Special prison orders were also available that served as guides on how security prisoners should be handled.

Records that are older than 20 years are open once deposited in the National Archives, subject to a record not containing the following: names of people where personal profile reports exist; reports on incidents such as alleged assaults that reveal sensitive information that could be damaging to individuals; names of informants; medical reports; and transcriptions of conversations between political prisoner and visitors. Not all these records are withheld or completely closed. In some cases written permission should be submitted for access, depending on the kind of research that will be done and in other cases deletion of names might be something to negotiate.

It is also important to note that when a political prisoner during Apartheid was released, he/she was normally transferred to the prison closest to his/her place of residence and in this case the institutional file went with him/her. This was also the case with transfer during sentence from one prison to another.

G) Prison Records of ex-state DCS

The lists below outline files and registers that have been identified as records that can be of use during the research process and that can complement one another. It should be noted that correspondence is sometimes duplicated in administrative files, but administrative files normally help to explain who took decisions. Depending on the kind of file used, some files are closed after a year and a new one opened per year, while others stretch over a few years. This also applies to registers, as intakes were greater in some years than in others. These are all records that are regarded as valuable sources for further research into the Apartheid history within prisons because they capture the majority of communications and procedures followed within prisons, registration of prisoners, incidents and coverage of prison matters. It is important to take note of the fact that some records are divided into prison sections while others are not. Usually it is stated on the file or register when it covers only a particular section. It should also be stressed that the outline covers only prison records. Some of the information in prison records is duplicated at regional office and head office level, but the records at these levels fall outside the ambit of this report.

1) Prison routine and administrative registers

Prisoner admission registers

Day to day intake of prisoners, their belongings, etc – into a specific prison (sign in and out)

Prisoner Index registers

Alphabetical register of prisoner intake and release

Board office registers

Board review sessions for prisoners

Daily return of prisoner registers

Signing prisoners in and out of cells during daily activities

Complaints books

Note complaints day to day by name and kind of complaint

Prisoner requests

Note requests day to day by name and kind of request

Department of Employment registers

Post-imprisonment placement

Visitor books

Day to day, sign in visitors and note who was visited (family and friends)

Legal representative visitor books

Day to day, sign in legal visits and name of prisoner visited

Meal registers

Note punishment day to day of meals refused to who and reasons (contravention in prison)

Offences within prison: registers

Day to day recording of contravention and by whom

Service duty registers

Day to day recording of who was on duty (warders)

Diary for kitchen

Food preparation and menus

Key registers

Signing in and out

Weapon registers

Recording the kind of weapon taken out of store, to whom it was signed out

Night service journal

Register for warders on night shifts and recording of events

Segregation and solitary confinement register

Who was put in solitary confinement/segregation, why and amount of days

Mail registers

Incoming and outgoing mail day to day

Archive registers

What has been sent to prison archive

Destruction registers

Recording of records disposed of in terms of disposal authorities

Labour groups registers

Description of groups like kitchen workers, cleaners, etc and when activities were undertaken, signing them out

2) Prison Correspondence Files – File indicates subject, period of coverage and office (prison), with file and volume number

Complaints & Requests

Inquiries – personal possessions, letters from prisoners and family or friends, parole, mass action, applications by legal representatives to visits, petitions to prison authorities

Discipline & Control – Inquiries about Prisoners

Inquiries about classification of prisoners, confidential personal reports or profiles

Emergency planning, Security

Most marked confidential, information regarding activities pertaining to safety, political prisoner group evaluations

Privileges, Visits

Social matters such as family affairs, incoming mail censorship and decisions

International Red Cross Reports

Investigation, recommendation and statistical reports

Discipline, Control, Punishments

Mostly procedures and orders

Routine inquiries

Actual inquiries and advised replies with actual replies

Unofficial Visits

Details about proposed visits by family and friends, decisions and notification

Official visits

Details about proposed visits by legal representatives, decisions and notification


Details about nature of escapes, dates and who

Prisoner personal files

Also called the institutional files (see above description of political files now at National Archives in Pretoria)

Photocopies of personal correspondence

Photocopies of personal letters from and to prisoners

Classified correspondence

Mostly correspondence between prisons and head office but in can include communications to other state departments such as the old Bantu Administration

Newspapers, Magazines for prisoners (1980’s)

Details about allocated newspapers


Details of group privileges allowed

Prisoner Studies

Communication and logistics of exams, registration, books and financial matters

3) Prison Administration Files

(File indicates subject, period of coverage and office (prison), with file and volume number)

Prisoner matters

General circulars and memos

Prison procedures

Registration of prisoners

Lists of prisoners and allocated board numbers

Intake of prisoners

Lists of yearly intakes and amounts

Overpopulation, transfers and accommodation

Transfers to other prisons- track record thereof


Dates, courts, prisoner escorts


On things such as medical treatment, education, services sport, recreation, exercise and help to dependants

Prison Orders

On treatment of prisoners

Diet charts and sheets

Medical and general

Social work and Spiritual workers

Appointments made and allocation to certain prisoners


Treatment policies, placements

Marriage & divorce of prisoners


Prison labour groups

Lists of group divisions, original occupations and administering of functions

Workshop tools

Inventories, acquisitions


Divided between conditional and unconditional with administrative forms included

Deportation of banned immigrants


Sentence reductions

Reasons, confirmations

Illness report on prisoners

Description, medication

Deaths in prison

Situation reports, notification

Personnel, prison matters


Awards and reasons

Dog units

Operation, uses and administrative issues


Plans, maps, changes, approval

Inspection reports and commentary

Ranging from inventories taken to conditions with recommendations

Judges and magistrates

Listings and visits

Articles, photos by institutions or newspapers and visits

Communication about concerns, approval or disapproval of visits

Procedures, actions and rules

During specific incidents

Meetings, agendas and minutes

Covering all matters that concern prison functions and events

Confidential reports

With regard to incidents



Personnel administration and member files

Personnel development, boards, committees, conferences, workshops, clubs, housing etc.

Terrain and farming matters

Production, transport of produce


Statements, reports, records covering all prison functions

Death row prisoner records

Being a category on its own, these files are housed at Pretoria Central Prison’s archive currently. They document all death row prisoners, irrespective of whether sentence was carried out or not. One option is to make an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act or to submit a proposal of research to DCS’s research department which merely channels the application, once again with a proper explanation of the proposed research.

Source: by Linda Duvenage (November 2002)