THE late South African President Nelson Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years for fighting apartheid, once noted: “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”.
Going by Mandela’s observation, Zimbabwe is one of the worst societies to live in judging by the inhumane treatment of its prisoners.
Just last week three MDC-T activists were released on bail after spending 33 months in remand at Chikurubi Maximum Prison and all they could do was thank God that they survived acute food shortages, overcrowding and the spread of communicable diseases claiming the lives of scores of prisoners.
The trio — Last Maengahama, Tungamirai Madzokere and Yvonne Musarurwa — are part of the 29 MDC-T Glen View activists arrested for allegedly killing Police Inspector Petros Mutedza during public disturbances in the suburb in May 2011.
The activists told a press briefing at MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s Highlands home in Harare that there was scant clothing, food and water as well as diseases at Chikurubi where they were treated as convicts even if they are only suspects and were housed together with hardcore criminals.
Musarurwa said: “People are dying every day of hunger in custody and in our section we were allowed to go outside only for 30 minutes each day.”
Jail conditions were deteriorating in tandem with the declining economy and this was reflected in the food shortages seriously affecting prisoners’ health, Maengahama said.
“We would get one small plate of sadza and spinach in the afternoon. The few times that we got tea it would come with no bread and the tea was very weak with a few drops of milk and a pinch of tea-leaves,” he said.
The suffering which characterises Zimbabwe’s prisons, some condemned as unfit for human habitation, 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.
British mercenary Simon Mann in his book Cry Havoc also vividly describes Zimbabwe’s appalling prison conditions. He was detained at Chikurubi in 2004 after being arrested in Harare with 69 others on their way to Malabo to topple Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo through a coup.
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 an interview with this paper, one of the acquitted 29 MDC-T Glenview activists, Kerina Gweshe said the food situation at prisons, especially Chikurubi where she was incarcerated for close to 10 months, was “shocking”.
“I had become used to tea without sugar and that sadza and matemba is delicious as compared to sadza and boiled vegetables daily,” Gweshe said.
“For the 10 months I was incarcerated, we had sadza with meat not more than three times. The only other times were when my children brought me food from home.”
Since the withdrawal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2011, which supplied prisons with beans, cooking oil and groundnuts, the Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS) has been hit by a critical shortage of food to feed more than 17 000 prisoners in the country’s 72 prisons.
The ICRC had been helping government feed prisoners since 2008 when Zimbabwe’s economic crisis climaxed.
Sources within the prison services say government has failed to provide sufficient food supplies to the country’s prisoners resulting in many inmates suffering from food deficiency diseases such as scurvy and pellagra and even death.
The ICRC withdrawal from feeding prisoners has severely compromised operations of the ZPS as government is not able to monitor the nutritional status of inmates and improve management of the food supply chain, prison department sources claim.
However, ZPS public relations officer Elizabeth Banda dismissed reports of food shortages in the prisons.
“Can someone stay in those conditions and still obtain a diploma?” Banda asked. “I think you should come and spend a day in any prison of your choice and write from an informed point of view because those inmates are getting what they should get.”
Contrary to Banda’s claims, Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs secretary Virginia Mabhiza recently told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs that “in order to feed prisoners on the prescribed standard dietary scale as prescribed in Statutory Instrument 96 of 2012, the ministry requires US$21 million for the whole year, but the department was only allocated US$2,5 million for prisoners’ rations”.
Last December Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa had to come out to deny reports by officials in his ministry who spoke under oath before a Justice Portfolio Committee revealing more than 100 prisoners had died in detention since January due to malnutrition and related illnesses caused by food shortages and natural causes.
ZPS Commissioner Paradzai Zimondi last year told journalists during a media tour of the Harare Remand Prison that prisons were experiencing serious food shortages even though they were getting supplementary assistance from non-governmental organisations.
The release of Maengahama, Madzokere and Musarurwa last week brought into sharp focus the state of Zimbabwe’s prisons once again, reminding the nation the country’s jails are catastrophic hellholes.