OVERCROWDING, squalour, disease and starvation characterise Zimbabwe’s 55 jails following decades of underfunding of prisons and neglect by the authorities.
The Supreme Court last week visited Harare Central Police Station following an application filed by four Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) leaders seeking to condemn its detention cells as uninhabitable. The media was part of the tour.
The visit enabled journalists to a get glimpse into the hellhole that Zimbabwe’s prison cells have now become where thousands languish in misery and solitude.
At Harare central police station, the situation can only be described as awful. Cells designed to hold only six inmates are jam-packed with over 25 inmates sharing a single toilet flushed from the outside whenever the guard on duty feels like doing so.
For breakfast inmates are fed maize meal porridge –– which sometimes has no sugar –– two wafer-thin slices of bread and tea with only a few drops of milk.
At lunch time it becomes a case of “survival of the fittest” as inmates scramble for sadza with boiled cabbage or beans.
In its 2009 report on the state of local prisons, the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (Zacpro) says for most prisoners there is only one way to escape from this misery: dying!
The suffering which characterises a stay in Zimbabwe’s prisons is described in graphic detail by former CIO operative and apartheid South Africa’s double-agent Kevin Woods, who spent 18 years in the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare.
Woods was sentenced to death in 1987 for his role in the bombing of ANC safe houses in Zimbabwe at the height of apartheid brutality. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment before he was released courtesy of a presidential pardon in 2006.
Woods reveals in his book The Kevin Woods Story: In the shadows of Mugabe’s Gallows that for more than five years of his incarceration, he was cut off from the outside world and held in solitary confinement –– naked.
He describes prison conditions as deadly, leaving inmates to summon all their willpower to survive. Woods says he had to smuggle food into his cell on many occasions and endured overflowing toilets and days with no food, no electricity, no water and lice-infested blankets for months on-end.
Six years after Woods’ release, the country’s prisons are again under the spotlight.
Woza leaders Jenni Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, Celina Madukani and Clara Manjengwa petitioned the Supreme Court through their lawyers, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, seeking an order compelling government to ensure holding cells at Harare central police station met basic human dignity and hygiene standards.
Five Supreme Court Judges, Justices Vernanda Ziyambi, Rita Makarau, Paddington Garwe, Yunus Omerjee and Anne-Mary Gowora inspected the cells to ascertain their conditions.
However, the judges failed to get a true reflection of the state of the holding cells because the authorities cleaned the cells ahead of the scheduled visit.
“One of the cells on the first floor had a stench but the floor appeared to have been cleaned,” said Ziyambi who read out the Supreme Court’s observations in court after the inspection.
“In that cell, there were six blankets lying on the built-on concrete beds. In each cell that we inspected there were six built-in beds with no mattresses. Around each of the toilets there was a concrete block which was about a metre high but without a door.”
Woza leaders said great attempts had been made by the police to remove the “human waste bomb” that had been apparent on the first floor cell unit during their arrest in 2010.
Apart from food shortages and hygiene items, there is also a shortage of prison uniforms.
Zacpro said Chikurubi, which has a holding capacity of 800 inmates, currently has 1 780 prisoners –– more than double its capacity. The 55 prisons in the country have the capacity to accommodate 16 000 prisoners but presently hold 35 000 inmates.
The suffocating overcrowding has been blamed for the rampant outbreak of diseases and malnutrition within the prison system.
Exiled MDC-T treasurer Roy Bennett, who spent a year in jail for allegedly assaulting Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa during a heated parliamentary debate, referred to Zimbabwe’s prison conditions as “a human rights tragedy and a serious abuse of human rights”.
In July 2005 Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku ruled that police cells at Matapi and Highlands police stations were “degrading and inhuman and unfit for holding criminal suspects”.
Zacpro has said because of the current situation Zimbabwe’s prisons constitute a unique and a particularly cruel form of torture that has both physical and psychological impacts on inmates affected.
In an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent this week, DeputyJustice minister Obert Gutu said police cells and prisons need urgent refurbishment or even demolition.
“The fact of the matter is that most, if not all, cells in Zimbabwe are in urgent need of refurbishment and in some cases, such as at Chivhu prison, demolition,” Gutu said.“These are structures that were built several decades ago to cater for a relatively small prison population. The average cell in a Zimbabwean prison is nothing short of a hellhole.”
Gutu said most inmates were living dreadful lives.
“It would appear that the decision to phase off helpfrom the Red Cross was premature and ill-advised. Prisoners are now surviving on a diet of sadza or occasionally beans or half-boiled cabbages as relish,” said Gutu.
“We call upon development partners, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, to come on board and assist us in our vision of transforming our prisons into modern correctional facilities.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was until recently regularly supplying prisons with beans, cooking oil and groundnuts for more than 8 000 inmates in 17 places of detention around the country, including Harare Remand Prison and Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
It also provided assistance and technical support to the Zimbabwe Prison Service to boost food production at prison farms, upgrade water and sanitation facilities, monitor the nutrition of inmates and improve access to healthcare services.
However, following termination of its assistance, UCRC has left a huge void in the provision of food and other necessities. The situation is worsened by the fact that improving prison conditions ranks low in the cash-strapped unity government’s list of priorities. This means the suffering of prisoners will continue and as Zacpro said, for now the only way out for inmates is perhaps dying, making prison reform urgent.
As Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail to secure the freedom of South Africa, said: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”.