Tale from inside one of Zim’s hellholes

Following last week’s feature on Zimbabwe’s prisons conditions headlined Zim’s prisons catastrophic hellholes, our political writer Elias Mambo was invited to tour a prison of his choice by the Zimbabwe Prison Services, and he settled for Harare Central Prison where he was shocked by the prevailing conditions.

TALL and frail Jacob Arineki, who was sentenced to death in 1997 but whose imprisonment was commuted to a life term after appeal, had no kind words on conditions at Harare Central Prison which he described as a “death sentence” for all the convicted inmates.

The Zimbabwean government has been accused — with good reason — of locking prisoners in hellholes, condemning them to slow starvation and death from nutrition-related illnesses or a vast array of other diseases they are exposed to through unhygienic conditions.

Prisoners are denied the most basic rights with hunger the order of the day, despite Statutory Instrument 149 of 2011 compelling government to provide them with a proper diet. Zimbabwe’s prisons thus constitute a form of torture that has both physical and psychological impacts on prisoners.

I had the opportunity to interview middle-aged Arineki — who however looks older and broken — an inmate serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend in 1995. He has been locked up for the past 17 years and has witnessed conditions deteriorate at a frightening pace.

“It is the same, whether one gets five years or a life sentence because the result is death,” he said with a shrug of resignation. “I have seen prisoners dying; from Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison where I was incarcerated to Harare Central Prison. We have become used to a very monotonous diet of sadza and vegetables; at times we are given a handful of boiled groundnuts to substitute meat and provide for our protein needs.”

“If your relatives do not bring you meat and toiletries it means you are condemned to extreme poverty and fatal unhygienic conditions as the government is no longer supplying day-to-day essentials. Newspapers which we use as toilet paper are scarce so we often don’t have anything to use after using the toilet.”

Harare Central Prison Officer-in-Charge Chief Superintendant Christmas Tarwira confirmed Arineki’s claims were factual.

“We have been seriously affected by the continued economic decline and just like any other organisation, we are struggling to meet our day-to-day needs. We are operating on a shoestring budget and this affects the whole system including the provision of adequate food that meets the dietary needs of prisoners,” Tarwira said.

Rarely do prisoners get bread at Harare Central Prison because the organisation cannot afford it. However, twice a month there is a special treat to look forward to: inmates greet the arrival of Bakers’ Inn Bakery trucks with roars of approval, whistling and dancing. The trucks’ arrival signals a rare change to the prison diet that is as deadly poor as it is unappetising. Never mind that the bread often consists of rejects or is stale.

“The bread comes twice a month and is donated by Innscor. We also encourage relatives of the prisoners to bring food regularly for their loved ones,” said Tarwira.

So bad is the current dietary situation that prisons are now allowing relatives to bring inmates food as often as they can as a way of mitigating the acute food shortage prisons face. Traditionally, relatives could only bring prisoners food on special occasions such as public holidays.

“This prison is meant to cater for 1 470 inmates at a time, but currently we have 2 051 prisoners and this exerts tremendous pressure on resources,” said Tarwira. “We have hundreds of prisoners serving long-term sentences and a maximum security wing where 79 inmates on death row stay.”

The prison, whose buildings are crying out for a facelift or lick of paint at the very least, however boasts of a hospital with 26 nurses manned by two doctors as well as a school with an enrolment of 268 inmates doing various courses. The hospital only has five beds forcing some patient to sleep on the floor.

Although 420 inmates are on anti-retroviral drugs the hospital matron, Thandiwe Chaitezvi, said they have enough drugs for the inmates.
“We have enough stocks of ARVs and all necessary basic drugs in the pharmacy,” Chaitezvi said. “The only problem we have is lack of beds …”

It is not enough though for the prison to have sufficient ARV stocks. According to a Botswana-based Zimbabwean medical expert, Martin Sibanda, ARVs can have a devastating effect on those on poor diets.
“ARVs are very strong; if taken without food they make you doze and feel weak,” Sibanda said. “Generally, poor nutrition weakens the body’s defences against the virus, hastens progress from HIV to Aids and makes it difficult to take ARVs. Sufficient food of the appropriate variety can help reduce side-effects of ARVs and promote adherence to drug regimens.”

As we strolled to the dilapidated kitchen which is now in fact an empty hall as all the cooking is now done outside using firewood inmates in one of the congested cells, most of whom looked rather emaciated, started shouting, ululating and jumping up and down in obvious excitement.

Some were even hitting the walls in celebration.
I asked one of the prison officers why there was such spontaneous joy to which he responded one of them had received 2kg of brown sugar, so I rushed to meet the recipient before he was whisked away.

“My brother brought sugar and we use this as relish with sadza. We mix it with some water then we have our sadza. I share this with my cellmate and we take turns to ask for sugar from our relatives,” said Aleck Mutemo, who is serving a seven-year jail term. But like most inmates he was unwilling to divulge the crime he committed.

The huge kitchen, which used to have electric pots, has given in to the ravages of time and the dilapidation can be seen even on the chapped floors and electric cables that criss-cross the hall going nowhere in particular.

“All of these electric pots are no longer functioning and now food is prepared outside using firewood, which makes it extremely difficult and rather unhygienic,” said another officer in charge of the kitchen, identified only as Mukanganyama.

There were two huge pots of beans on fire outside the kitchen and I wondered if they would be enough for more than 2 000 inmates.
As if reading my thoughts, Mukanganyama said: “This is a prison, so do not expect pizza. As long as we have some form of food then that is alright”, as he invited me to taste the beans.

“You see, the sadza is that dark because of the smoke from the firewood; we do not put cement in food as you journalists claim,” he said with a dry chuckle.

I left the prison a dejected man for what I had seen could best be described by Nelson Mandela’s assertion 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”.