Runtime: 83 Minutes
Directors: Femke van Velzen, Isle van Velzen
By Tom Moore
In “Prison for Profit,” documentarians Femke van Velzen and Isle van Velzen create a gut-wrenching exposé that centers on an investigative journalist’s findings about South Africa’s first privatized prison – where profit comes before safety.
British private security firm G4S runs Mangaung prison, where journalist Ruth Hopkins investigated the treatment of prisoners and the violent atmosphere. The van Velzens, who also co-directed 2016’s “A Haunting History,” dig deep into the corruption and horrors that can befall both the inmates and the guards within a privatized prison. With there being no government control or even a watchful eye, G4S decided to prioritize profit by cutting corners on safety regulations, creating a violent environment for both inmates and guards.
[I]nsider footage from a warder shows him talking to a stabbing victim over the background screams of other inmates being tortured with electricity.
Going inside of Mangaung is like going into “The Stanford Prison Experiment” on steroids as the methods used and the violent atmosphere are absolutely shocking. It’s the definition of inhumane torture as former prisoners and guards recall things like electrified shields and drug injections being used as forms of crowd control and creating fear. There’s a moment where insider footage from a warder shows him talking to a stabbing victim over the background screams of other inmates being tortured with electricity. The electroshock torture is especially worse when the guards talk about how they used water and even placed the equipment on prisoners’ private parts just to “make them sing.”
The film also does a great job of establishing why the prisoners and the guards are mostly just victims of G4S’s negligence. Every instance of violence depicted in the film, regardless of whether by prisoners or guards, always ties back to how G4S valued the profits it made in cutting corners rather than the safety of those within its prison walls. It’s actually stunning to see how G4S missed the mark in creating a safe environment with just some simple changes. Things like having steel toilets rather than sharp and breakable porcelain ones; having a better prisoner-to-guard ratio than 60 to 1; and not essentially forcing the guards to hide their mistakes.
Because this was a privatized prison, there was no outside oversight controlling G4S, which basically was let off the leash with no repercussions. While the prisoners and guards shouldn’t be completely absolved of anything they did, it’s easy to see how G4S’s actions created an atmosphere that was never really going to be safe for anyone.
“Prison for Profit” also effectively touches on the mental and physical scars left on the prisoners and guards from their experience in Mangaung. It’s surprisingly compelling to hear the guards’ side of things; they might seem like they’re fine discussing things that they did, but they still look haunted by them and were definitely not proud of themselves. Their story is truly the definition of a power struggle as they recall a bunch of different times where they tried to step in and make changes but only had their positions threatened. It’s even more disturbing to hear how they were essentially told to instill fear by any means necessary and turn off their body cams so they wouldn’t get in trouble. It’s corruption on a whole other horrific level, and the mental scars left on them are clear.
“Prison for Profit” perfectly depicts a system that treats people like pawns and leaves them as shells of their former selves.
Having the film focus on Hopkins’s investigation and research makes for an emotionally gripping watch as we follow her every move. Her presence gives viewers someone to share the shock and horrors with as every new discovery is just as jaw-dropping for her. The film is basically like watching secret corruption unfold before your eyes and how the lives of these prisoners and guards were broken. They’re only able to find solace in those that are equally haunted around them.
“Prison for Profit” perfectly depicts a system that treats people like pawns and leaves them as shells of their former selves. It’s the kind of corruption story that immediately makes you want to do something about it, and throughout the film, you can feel Hopkins’s drive to see justice served.
The film also is an effective example of money being valued over human lives and the horrors that this can lead to – especially in a prison setting. With every startling discovery, it’s impossible not to feel your heart hurt. It’s exactly why the film and Hopkins’s efforts are a grueling and impactful call for change.