In the season 4 finale Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, host Raphael Rowe stayed in Maseru Central Prison in Lesotho in Africa — a prison notorious for its high number of sex offenders. This time, Rowe heads to South Africa’s Brandvlei Correctional Centre, dominated by so-called “number gangs.” What is a number gang, you might ask? It’s a gang where an unusual — one might say exaggerated, or even fanatical — level of importance is given to one’s rank, which is designated by a number system.
After years under South Africa’s apartheid system, Cape Town has one of the world’s highest murder rates, driven by extreme poverty. Rowe interviews Captain Althea Jefra and witnesses an anti-gang raid. We see a “Mongrel Gang” member with a tattoo of number 26. The number system is never 100% explained in the episode, but it’s likely something one wouldn’t fully understand without being immersed in the prison culture directly.
Upon entering Brandvlei, Raphael Rowe is put in both handcuffs and ankle chains — which is a stronger restraint than we typically see on the series (to be fair, though, they apparently do not do a complete strip search as they have suggested of other prisons in other episodes). The prison guards (called “wardens”) tell it to him straight: Rowe will have to do what the gangs say in the K3 Unit. The staff gives a brief interview to verify whether Rowe belongs to a gang (with numbers 26, 27. 28), and he reveals he does not.
After that, Rowe is assigned a cell, wherein he receives a chilly reception and a 2nd body search for weapons from his fellow inmates (and I use the term “fellow” loosely). Those who have watched “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons” might instantly recognize a difference in attitude between Brandvlei’s prisoners and those of other prisons Rowe has visited. In fact, even notorious serial killer Serhiy Tkach seemed eerily more hospitable than these prisoners.
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Although Rowe tries to ask the prisoners questions, they immediately make it clear who’s in charge, and it isn’t him. Inmates Lee and Curtis start to interview him, rather than the other way around.
They’re also very quick to steal his shoes and tell him he can’t do anything about it. Their justification is that he’s rich and white (although Raphael Rowe is actually bi-racial). That’s not the only justification, however, because they treat all non-gang members like this, labeling them “Frans.”
Because he’s not in a gang, the other prisoners make him wash clothes, as a sign of his inferior rank. We also learn that at least some gangs might have special languages (like on called “Sabella”). In addition to emphasizing number and rank, a Warden reveals that prisoners can stab any Warden at any time, for no reason other than a prisoner gaining rank. On that note, Raphael meets a man named Masalino during a game of cricket, although Masalino’s nickname is “Graveyard” (further illustrating a fascination with death).
Graveyard shares that he is serving life sentences for robbery and murder, among other things and this includes murdering his uncle (though we don’t learn the specifics). It seems Graveyard has earned his nickname, as he has been linked to 24 murders, with some of them no doubt getting him ranked “Colonel-General” in his number gang.
Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons recap: Gaining trust
As we’ve seen in other episodes of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, Raphael Rowe has a reliable backstory to earn respect from other prisoners. He explains his wrongful conviction and incarceration, and how he was ultimately freed after 12 years. The story proves valuable once again, as even these prisoners seem to give him more respect after learning his ordeal. Interestingly, we also learn the prisoners belong to separate, warring gangs outside the prison, but can put those differences aside while in prison.
Next, Mr. Rowe works at a medium-security carrot farm, alongside a prisoner named Senador. Senador has a different outlook from many others inside Brandvlei. He confides in Rowe that he will change when he’s out of prison, thanks to finding religion. In fact, he even says he will look into having his gang tattoos removed! We also briefly meet Bradley, a fellow Frans who had to pay money for protection in prison for not joining a number gang.
Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons recap: Curtis’s deadly responsibility
Need further proof that number gangs can be like Hell on earth? Raphael Rowe spends a little more time speaking to a surprisingly nervous Curtis, in prison for murder and robbery. After recalling a warden being beaten to death with a padlock, Curtis confesses the unique pressure of having to set up an attack (or even murder) against a Warden. If he doesn’t, he’s at serious risk of being killed himself. It sounds like the definition of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons recap: Ebongweni Supermax
Next, Rowe meets George Thomas, leader of the 28s, at the nearby Ebongweni Supermax facility. Thomas says his gang stabbed 27 Wardens who didn’t listen to people’s complaints, and that he was in prison during the Apartheid years. He now says he’s trying to convince the gangs to move away from violence.
This episode does not pretend an ability to solve this prison’s problems, but it immediately becomes clear that they don’t solely exist within the prison’s walls. There are also walls within one’s mind, and these number gangs look like cults with very little purpose other than death and degradation.
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