Human rights by Bright Chibvuri
Prison conditions in Zimbabwe are in a horrible state. Despite recent measures by the authorites to reform them, overcrowding, sexual abuse, diseases and indequate food continue to take their toll on the inmates.
A former female prisoner, Maria Chikwenje who served a two-year jail term, at Chikurubi prison deplored her life behind bars and vowed that she will never commit a crime in her lifetime again. "First I stayed in a room called a cell where we slept on bunk beds. Then we were moved to a dormitory. There were about 80 of us sleeping on the floor with our feet meeting in the middle room," says Chikwenje who was convicted of theft in 1996.
Chikwenje's experience chronicled the rough life faced by inmates in Zimbabwe's prisons. The problems of prisoners range from over crowding, physical and verbal abuse, high risk of contracting disease and the danger of HIV/AIDS infection because of the possibility of homosexual and lesbian activities widely reported in the country's prisons. Although there are no official statistics to prove this, former prisoners say these sexual practices often happen. "Once you are there you can not resist it. It is part of entertainment and we used to enjoy it a lot. First offenders and the youths are more vulnerable to old timers", said Kedah Adams who served at Mazowe prison, after he was convicted for house breaking.
At some prisons officials deny that homosexuality is rife. "If it happens then it's a criminal activity which we are not aware of. No one has come to us and complained about this practice. Anyone caught doing it will be hauled before the magistrate courts for prosecution," said a prison officer at Masvingo prison and who preferred not give his name.
Sexual abuse apart, it has been indicated that over-crowding and poor sanitary conditions are reported to have reached unacceptable levels in the country's 40 jails. At the moment the prison population hovers around 20 000 which is about 4 000 more than the normal holding capacity of 16 000. A prison in Gweru, popularly remembered for detaining black political activists during the colonial era, is the most over-populated with 1736 prisoners. Homosexual activities are reported to be rife at the prison. The chief Prison spokesman Frankie Meki confirmed that sexual misconduct among prisoners at the complex existed. "The prison has the highest number of inmates. I confirm that there are reports of sexual abuse at this complex but I cannot give the figures. No research was done to establish the magnitude of the problem," said Meki. Some jails do not have toilets. Prisoners use buckets to relieve themselves subjecting them so diseases like dysentry and other infections. "We could use containers because there was nowhere else to go," complained Chikwenje.
The Zimbabwe government is spending more than Z$40m annually for the up-keep of prisoners thereby further straining the country's financial resources. The cost of maintaining an inmate average about Z$2,000 per month. Lack of health facilities has accelerated the spread of such diseases like menengitis and tuberculosis in the prisons. At least 12 inmates died of meningitis last year and several others are reported to have died of tuberculosis. Many others suffered from the disease upon discharge.
The spread of meningitis prompted the Ministry of Health to vaccinate all prisoners at Chikurubi Maximum, Harare Central and Bundura prisons where cases of the disease had gone out of hand. The government has also called for the construction of a proper hospital at Chikurubi prison to ensure that inmates received better treatment.
Disturbing press reports have revealed that some female and male prisoners did not put on underwear because of limited supplies, a practice, which has been condemned by human rights groups as 'degrading and dehumanising.' "Prisoners do not have sufficient clothing. Most of them put on tattered clothes. They walked with bare foot and sleep on concrete slabs," said Ernest Maigurira president of the Zimbabwe Association for the Crime and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO). "This is a barbaric action which is against the basic human rights of fair treatment. They should provide them with light underwear if it is for security reasons," said Elizabeth Feltoe, the legal officer of the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace.
Food shortages is another problem. Prisoners complained of poor food supplies while others said they were served with one meal per day."It is survival of the fittest. Sometimes we scramble for food. I wonder where the chefs are putting our food rations," said a Bulawayo prisoner,James Jiri. But the Attorney General Patrick Chinamasa brushes aside these complaints. He says:"Prison by its nature is not supposed to be a cosy place. It should not in a way bear resemblance of a hotel otherwise we will be like boarding schools. These places should at least teach offenders that committing a crime can burn their fingers".
Because of limited food supplies, inmates with money capitalise on their colleagues whom they ask for sexual favours in exchange for food, cigarettes and sometimes drugs mostly marijuana smuggled through dubious means."Sometimes you could trade a piece of bread for soap. Prison life is unbearable but that's the life," said Jack, a jailbird.
To address the growing prison problem, the government is making effort to reduce the prison population. The Community Service Programme introduced in 1996 has benefited thousands of petty offenders. Convicts sent on community service are assigned to government institutions in need of cheap labour such as schools, hospitals, clinics and colleges. Oliver Chigariro, the Community Service officer says: "The programmes has been successful. Families are kept intact without loss of contact and most communities are benefiting. This also help keep petty offenders away from hard core criminals as is the case when one is sent to jail."
Besides community service the government has started to introduce the open prison system at Connemara prison in the Midlands province. Under this system prisoners serve their jail terms without rigorous conditions associated with prison life, giving prisoners decent accommodation, food and privacy.
Offenders would be allowed to have frequent visitors, go to bed at any time they want and are allowed to go to their homes during weekends. However these only apply to those whose prison terms are short, conduct themselves well and those regarded as less dangerous criminals.