HUNGER and disease continued stalking Zimbabwe’s jails, leaving thousands of prisoners at risk of joining the statistics of inmates who have succumbed to these death traps.
Prisoners this week narrated to newly-appointed Justice deputy minister Obert Gutu how grave their conditions were despite several promises by the coalition government to improve the situation.
Clad in tattered prison garb, and many of them skin and bone due to malnutrition, the prisoners told Gutu how what were supposed to be correctional services have turned into horror chambers where inmates, irrespective of their sentence, face death daily.
Inmates living with HIV and Aids are failing to access life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs as well as a supplementary diet recommended by doctors for such patients. To worsen matters, they are exposed to harsh weather conditions, especially during winter because the Zimbabwe Prison Service (ZPS) cannot afford blankets or warm clothing for inmates.
“Poor diet in the prisons is fast-tracking people living with HIV and Aids to death,” Daniel Dombwe, an inmate at Harare Central Prison who has served 10 of his 16-year sentence for armed robbery, told Gutu.
He said disease was spreading faster in prisons because of dire drug shortages and a poor diet.
“Prison pharmacies are empty. We have the worst health conditions in jails. Most of the inmates are HIV positive, but they don’t have a supplementary diet,” Gutu lamented. “There is no standard dietary scale and we are starving. Can government be serious about prisoners?”
Frail inmates walking almost naked at Harare and Chikurubi prisons are a common sight, despite repeated calls, including one by Supreme Court judge Rita Makarau for government to turn jails into adequately resourced correctional and rehabilitation centres.
At Chikurubi, two youthful inmates, Tinashe Songora and Munyaradzi Shavi, who had their full sight when they were jailed, went blind after being attacked by pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease, in 2008.
Gutu’s familiarisation tour of Harare and Chikurubi prisons lay bare the coalition government’s failure to improve service delivery 16 months after its much hyped formation. He saw first hand how torn blankets and linen are used as desperate substitutes for toilet paper.
The deputy minister, whose visit to the prisons was not the first by a top official following similar tours by his predecessor Jessie Majome this year, witnessed raw sewerage flowing at Chikurubi, which is holding 1 568 prisoners against a capacity of 1 360.
“We don’t want prisons to harden criminals. Prisoners should be transformed into useful members of the society,” Gutu told the prisoners, the majority of whom have heard similar promises from officials who visited them before. “Even if someone is a prisoner, there are United Nations, Sadc and African Union charters that govern that there should be minimum dietary requirements. The government will look at food requirements for prisoners.”
A decision by the ZPS to ban relatives from supplying food to prisoners has worsened the situation.
“In 2008, we survived while hundreds died like flies in prisons. The secret behind our survival was that relatives brought us food on a daily basis,” Nkululeko Mawila, who is serving life for murder, said. “Why should ZPS ban food supplies yet they can’t feed us properly? We foresee people dying again at Chikurubi and at any other prison.”
Prison officers told Gutu the ZPS relied on erratic donations for sanitary ware, forcing some female inmates to resort to torn pieces of blankets.
Pregnant female inmates and babies incarcerated with their mothers or born in prisons are in a worse situation.
“There are no vehicles to take the sick and pregnant mothers to Parirenyatwa hospital,” said Betty Chibwe, an inmate at Chikurubi female prison. “The babies, aged between zero and four, share food rations with their mothers. It’s so bad to be locked in jail and we are begging to be released under the Presidential Amnesty.”
Ministry of justice and some prison officials openly wept as a group of women knelt before Gutu crying for amnesty.
ZPS Mashonaland commander senior assistant commissioner Wonder Chisora cited poor funding as the major cause of the conditions prevailing in prisons.
“The story in prisons is disease and suffering,” is how murder convict, Mike Matanga, who is languishing at the notorious Chikurubi prison, summed up the situation.