The acting head of Johannesburg Prison has launched a full investigation into former Tigon CEO Gary Porritt’s role in a recent prison riot.
EM Dhlamini also recommended that Porritt be transferred to the C-Max maximum security facility in Pretoria. In the meantime, Porritt is being held in a single cell at the prison known as Sun City.
This was disclosed during a fresh bail hearing launched by Porritt that was heard in the High Court in Johannesburg last week.
Judge Ramarumo Monama will announce his ruling on Thursday. If Porritt succeeds, the ruling could open the floodgates for similar applications that might see large numbers of elderly detainees with underlying health conditions released due to the risk of contracting Covid-19 in prison.
Porritt and his co-accused, former Tigon director Sue Bennett, are on trial for fraud, theft and the contravention of among others the income Tax Act, Companies Act and the Exchange Control Act.
This relates to the collapse of then JSE-listed financial services group Tigon around 2002.
Porritt was arrested in 2002 and Bennett in 2003. The trial only started in 2016 and both accused were out on bail, until Porritt was arrested three years ago for failing to attend court. He has been held in Sun City since.
According to a preliminary report compiled by a correctional services investigator and submitted to Dhlamini, Porritt is “disturbing the smooth administration of the [Corrections] centre, jeopardising the security of the centre and instigating detainees to revolt against the operations of the Centre”.
The report contains affidavits from five inmates, including Porritt, and a corrections officer.
It deals with two incidents.
On April 25 Porritt allegedly instigated fellow detainees to pose for and take misleading pictures about prison conditions. These would be smuggled out of prison and sent to, among others, a journalist in London.
In this regard Thembinkosi Mthembu, who is awaiting trial on charges of house robbery, stated under oath that: “Remand detainee Porritt told me that his case can drag on for another 10 years and him showing the media and the ministers what is happening inside the prison can help him to get bail or even get released.”
Porritt is further accused of instigating a prison riot on May 12, including convincing two inmates to eat glass.
Detainee Tshepo Kwinda, who is also facing charges of house robbery, admitted throwing his hot porridge during the breakfast service on the person who served them, following which other inmates jumped over the serving counter and attacked the server. This, he stated, was on instruction of Porritt.
According to the report, Kwinda also stated that “he and remand detainee Mongeni Khumalo swallowed broken glasses as remand detainee Gary Porritt instructed them to do so …”.
Khumalo confirmed this, adding that the glass was from a broken glass globe. He added that Porritt promised to pay for his bail and threatened to kill his family if he refused to participate, since he “is very connected to the outside world”.
Not true, says Porritt
Porritt’s version is quite different. He stated that he urged fellow inmates to refrain from violence during the planned protest, which was aimed at focusing attention on their complaints about the lack of measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
He emphasised that he was not present during the riot, since he was still busy shaving in his cell.
On Thursday advocate Manny Witz, appearing for Porritt, argued that his age, underlying health problems – which include a serious heart condition, high blood pressure, skin cancer, back problems and a history of respiratory infections – together with prison overcrowding, which makes social distancing impossible, put Porritt at an unacceptable risk of contracting Covid-19.
Witz asked the court to release him on bail, while imposing conditions, so that he can continue farming on his cattle ranch in KwaZulu-Natal.
Witz referred to a report from the inspector of prisons, retired judge Edwin Cameron, which confirmed the overcrowding, as well as a statement by Professor Lucille Blumberg, who is a member of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, about the risk.
He said the court cannot rely on statements by “house robbers and rapists” about Porritt’s conduct in court.
State prosecutor advocate Etienne Coetzee SC however argued that Porritt’s issues with prison conditions should be addressed by getting a court order for prison authorities to take the necessary precautions.
He said if Porritt was granted bail on these grounds, it would lead to a flood of similar applications.
Coetzee further argued that Porritt is opportunistic, and this is the latest in a long history of delay tactics and disrespect for the legal system, which is exactly what put him behind bars in the first place.