A total of 643 rapes were reported in South African prisons between 2010 and 2013, the department of correctional services has said.
Of these, 247 rapes were reported between 2012 and 2013, according to a reply to a parliamentary question from DA MP James Selfe released today.
But experts believe the figure could easily run into thousands if the number of unreported rapes is considered.
Sasha Gear, director of Just Detention International (JDI), a lobby group against rape and abuse in prisons, said many rapes that occur in prisons, police cells and court holding cells went unreported and unpunished.
While Gear applauded the department of correctional services for releasing the figures for the first time, she said there was a lot of public apathy in cases involving the abuse of inmates.
This not only exacerbated the rapes but some went unpunished.
"We applaud the department for collecting and making available these statistics but these figures represent a tip of the iceberg when it comes to the real number of rapes in prisons, holding cells at police stations and court cells.
"This is because men generally fear the stigma that accompanies rape and do not report it. They fear reprisals from inmates and sometimes prison warders, and they feel emasculated and are made to feel emasculated when the rapes occur," said Gear.
She said the public rarely felt any sympathy for prisoners who were raped but many forgot that not all prisoners are convicted and that some are awaiting trial.
"There’s this ‘us and them’ attitude by the public and the courts towards the abuse of prisoners. It’s easy to put the blame on prisoners and we normally hear people say ‘they must rot in jail’ and that feeds (into) the rapes that happen in prison because there are no consequences most of the time," said Gear.
An example of indifference to rape in prisons was a complaint lodged by JDI and the Sonke Gender Justice Network in August against Magistrate Herman Badenhorst for comments he had made about rape in prisons.
The organisations lodged the complaint to Gauteng Regional Court President Modibedi Djaje about Badenhorst’s comment during the sentencing in a case of a rape of a 13 year old.
According to court transcripts released by the organisations, Badenhorst said: "We cannot just sit around here and say, 'Oh, you know Johannesburg is the rape capital of the world.' We have to prevent this recurring. In prison we cannot prevent you committing rape. You can always rape the other inmates if you are so inclined, but at least you will not be close to children and will not be able to rape children."
The organisations have accused Badenhorst of contravening the code of conduct and alleged that the magistrate had failed in "his duty to act with absolute integrity, to administer justice without prejudice, to execute his duties objectively and with courtesy and self-control, and to obey the laws of the land".