AFTER being jailed for 27 years for fighting apartheid, the late former South African president Nelson Mandela observed 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, what happened last Friday at Chikurubi Maximum prison, where close to 900 prisoners demonstrated against poor living conditions and poor diet leading to the death of several prisoners, mirrors the parlous state of the nation.
While official figures of deaths stood at five on Wednesday, prison guards claim that as many as 13 prisoners have since died. It has been long in coming.
While investigations continue the Chikurubi, prisoners apparently could not take the dire jail conditions any longer, setting blankets on fire and destroying property and a wall in a bid to escape hunger and disease.
Since Independence in 1980, conditions at the country’s prisons — like everything else — have been deteriorating at an alarming rate to the extent that ministers in the unity government (2009-2013) declared prisons were not fit for human habitation. Police cells have also been condemned for the same reasons.
Last year a commission led by a Supreme Court judge Justice Rita Makarau decried overcrowding, poor diet and a high prevalence of disease and pestilence in the country’s jails.
Also in 2014, a parliamentary committee raised the same issues — bordering on human rights abuses — and urged authorities to act on the state of the country’s prisons.
Speaking to the Zimbabwe Independent ex-Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison convict, Allen Moyo, said prison conditions are pathetic and government should do something before more prisoners die of starvation and outbreak of diseases.
“There are always piles of human waste in the toilets because flushing is done once a from outside the cells,” he said.
“The food is bad because at times porridge is served without sugar, cabbages are cooked without cooking oil and occasionally prisoners have to combine lunch and supper as one meal.”
A CIO operative and apartheid South Africa’s double agent Kevin Woods, who spent 18 years in the notorious Chikurubi Maximum security prison describes in graphic detail the horror and inhuman conditions which Zimbabwe’s prisoners find themselves in.
In his book The Kevin Woods Story: In the shadows of Mugabe’s Gallows, Woods reveals 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 will-power 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.
In an interview with this paper, Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders chief executive officer, Edison Chihota, said the situation is deteriorating in the country’s 72 prisons which hold more than 17 000 prisoners.
“The food situation in our prisons is critical; in fact this time around we are at an all-time low and if nothing happens then we are going to continue having a crisis,” Chihota said.
Chihota’s assertion is also strongly supported by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for human Rights (ZLHR) research launched in February last year titled Pre-trial Detention in Zimbabwe, which warned government over an impending food crisis in Zimbabwe’s prisons.
“The study found that prisoners in many of the detention centres were not being provided with food that constituted a balanced diet. The diet was mainly composed of the staple sadza (maize), cabbage and beans,” reads the report.
“The prisoners were complaining about the lack of meat in their diet, over and above the fact that there were generally not adequate quantities of food.
“The government should immediately fund the repair of prison infrastructure across the country, and should engage other partners, such as donor organisations and the private sector, to assist in improving the welfare of prisoners,” reads the report.
Clearly government has not acted on these recommendations, or if it has, its intervention has not had the desired effect of improving prisoner welfare substantially.
Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the new constitution spells out fundamental rights of prisoners which government must protect. “Section 50 (5) states that any person who is detained, including a sentenced prisoner, has the right … (d) to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity, including the opportunity for physical exercise and the provision, at state expense, of adequate accommodation, ablution facilities, personal hygiene, nutrition, appropriate reading material and medical treatment,” Mavhinga said.
“The government should make available adequate resources to ensure prisoners have enough food, clothes and blankets and that their health needs are catered for.
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition director Macdonald Lewanika said prisons are meant to be places where rehabilitation takes place, not where inmates give up their human rights. “Being imprisoned does not mean that one gives up their human rights — as such prisoners need to be treated with dignity, in a manner that is devoid of cruelty and inhumanity,” Lewanika said.
“The recent riots and the subsequent loss of life is concerning and the state must get to the bottom of these events through a board of inquiry.”
In light of the deaths at Chikurubi, MDC-T spokesperson and former Justice deputy minister, Obert Gutu, said the entire Zimbabwe Prisons service administration should be overhauled. “Chikurubi Maximum Security prison was originally designed to hold not more than 900 prisoners but presently it houses more than 1 400 inmates, including some extremely dangerous and hard-core criminals,” Gutu said.
“ZPCS employs about 8 000 prison officers. The ZPCS also runs about 23 commercial farms dotted throughout the country. The most prominent of these farms are Chikurubi Prison farm (consisting of not less than 830 hectares of prime farmland), Chawagonahapana Farm outside Bindura, Mutimurefu Prison farm outside Masvingo, Marondera Prison farm, Mazowe Prison farm, Khami Prison farm outside Bulawayo (which at its peak had more than 6 000 beef cattle), among many others.
“I do not see why a government with all those farms can fail to look after its prisoners,” Gutu said.
Since the withdrawal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2011, which supplied prisons with beans, cooking oil and groundnuts, the ZPS has been hit by a critical shortage of food to feed prisoners. The ICRC had been helping government feed prisoners since 2008 at the height of the economic meltdown.