LAST December reports attributed to a senior prison official speaking before a parliamentary committee that at least 100 Zimbabwean prisoners had died of hunger and disease because the cash-strapped government could only afford one meal a day for inmates were quickly dismissed by Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Candid Comment with Stewart Chabwinja
Yesterday, Justice permanent secretary Virginia Mabhiza told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs food stocks at the country’s prisons had dropped perilously and the situation is likely to worsen after the prisons department was allocated US$2,5 million against its requirement of US$21 million in this year’s budget.
This translates to a US$11 monthly food ration per prisoner, or, put more simply, about US$0,36 per prisoner per day. This seems a sure-fire prescription for death through starvation or dietary disease.
While in his denial Mnangagwa claimed the department of prisons and correctional services had benefited from the land reform programme from which they were producing food to supplement prisoners’ diet, Mabhiza told the committee prisons were failing to utilise the land due to financial constraints resulting in seed and fertiliser scarcity.
Sounds familiar? In any case, it is hard to remotely imagine famished and malnourished inmates tilling the fields in a productive manner!
Indeed, on World Humanitarian Day in 2012, then Justice deputy minister Obert Gutu warned food shortages at the country’s 42 prisons had reached alarming levels and an outbreak of malnutrition-related diseases was imminent.
While it is easy to dismiss concerns over the deplorable plight of prisoners, felons still have rights as citizens, with Statutory Instrument 149 of 2011 compelling government to provide them with a proper diet.
In a world where progressive governments are among other yardsticks judged on how they treat minorities, dignity must be the guiding ethos in the state’s treatment of prisoners; not even those on death row deserve to starve. Besides, the justice system is not infallible and many have been convicted only for their innocence to be proved after lengthy periods in the slammer.
The trend is that incarceration desires not merely punish the offender, but offer correctional services that help rehabilitate the prisoner once s/he leaves jail. Which is why correctional centres, the fashionable term for prisons, offer various courses and skills to help the prisoner after release.
The irony of it all is that while several of our political leaders in the current Zanu PF government achieved personal development by attaining degrees while incarcerated in prisons by white supremacists during the colonial era, starvation, disease and death stalk felons in independent Zimbabwe prisons today.
Surprisingly, last December during a high-level annual review meeting of the Zimbabwe United Nations Development Assistance Framework government requested the UN to downsize humanitarian work and channel funds instead to development work.
Among other humanitarian challenges, a Human Rights Watch report last year warned that five years after cholera killed over 4 000 people and sickened 100 000 more (in 2008), the conditions that allowed the epidemic to flourish persist in Harare’s high-density suburbs.