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S. African Prison Shootings Spark Calls for New Inquiry

Correctional authorities are trying to figure out how an inmate in South Africa's highest-security prison obtained a handgun, which he used to kill three other people, including the prison director, before apparently shooting himself. The incident has sparked calls for a probe into weapons smuggling in South African jails.

The dramatic hostage crisis at Pretoria's maximum-security prison has made banner headlines around the country. The precise series of events is still unclear, but four people are dead, including the prison director, after an inmate got hold of a gun. Correctional authorities believe it may have been a disastrous escape attempt with a weapon that had been smuggled into the facility.

Police arrested two people in the prison parking lot shortly after the shootings.

The so-called "C-Max" prison is South Africa's most secure correctional facility. Its inmates include Eugene de Kock, who headed the apartheid government's most notorious hit squad, and is now serving multiple life sentences. C-Max is also the temporary home of 14 alleged members of the Boeremag, a shadowy right-wing Afrikaaner terrorist group.

The South African Prisoners Organization for Human Rights says it is outraged about the breach of security at C-Max. The group's president, Golden Miles Bhudu, was at the prison Sunday waiting to visit group members as the hostage crisis unfolded.

"Well, it's a tragedy, to be quite frank with you," he said. "Because this C-Max, it's a copycat of what is called super-maximums in the United States of America. Now if you go to C-Max, it's an identical model of what is called in America the most secure prisons. If it happens in a facility like that, now you can imagine what could happen in other institutions or other correctional facilities around the country which are not as secure."

The prisoners' human rights group is calling for an independent judicial inquiry into weapons smuggling in the country's jails.

But there is already a judicial commission investigating corruption and abuse of inmates in South African prisons. The Jali Commission, named for the Durban judge who heads it, was appointed more than three years ago and has not yet issued its final report.

In its hearings around the country, the commission has heard evidence of shocking human rights violations, including rape and torture, as well as widespread corruption.

In one Bloemfontein prison, inmates and the prison director secretly videotaped guards selling prisoners drugs and a gun, as well as what are believed to be juvenile sex slaves.

A Johannesburg prison guard testified that he had helped several prisoners escape in exchange for about $10,000.

Despite the headline-grabbing testimony, the prisoners' human rights group has long been asking for the Jali Commission to be disbanded or at least wrap up its investigation. In the aftermath of the C-Max shootings, the group is asking for a new probe into prison weapons smuggling, under different ground rules.

"Well, look, the Jali Commission right from the onset was not taken seriously by correctional officers," said Golden Miles Bhudu. "Some of them did not even give full cooperation. But the Jali Commission has dragged now for too long. They should have concluded their investigation a long time ago. And maybe it's because of the workload that has been faced by them, and maybe they never anticipated that the workload and the problem was as huge as it has shown to be."

A spokesman for the department of correctional services has not ruled out establishing a new commission of inquiry based on the C-Max security breach.

Correctional officials say they are conducting an internal investigation into how the inmate obtained the gun, and whether security at C-Max needs to be increased even more.

He says the department was implementing a new nationwide prison-security strategy even before the Pretoria prison shootings.